The Green Revolution, which introduced high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice throughout the developing world, was on net a huge win for human welfare; studies suggest it dramatically raised per capita wealth and slashed infant mortality, saving millions of lives every year following. But the accompanying introduction of modern, powerful pesticides brought a surprising danger. Within years, pesticide ingestion became a leading means of suicide throughout much of the Global South, accounting for roughly a third of all suicides globally. Some 14 to 15 million people lost their lives to pesticide suicide from 1960 to 2018.
The good news is that this is a fixable problem, and Leah Utyasheva and Michael Eddleston of the Center for Pesticide Suicide Prevention at the University of Edinburgh have taken the lead in fixing it. While some pesticides are highly toxic to humans, and thus a major risk factor for suicide, others are not. When countries ban dangerous pesticides and push farmers to shift to safer ones, suicide rates plummet. After Sri Lanka took this approach in 1995, the national suicide rate fell by 70 percent.
Contrary to common belief, most people who attempt suicide and survive do not go on to die by suicide; typically, suicide is an impulsive act, and limiting suicidally depressed people’s access to highly lethal means of suicide, whatever they may be, is one of the most effective ways to prevent it. Regulations like Sri Lanka’s have become a best-practice policy for preventing pesticide suicides, much as handgun regulations are effective at preventing firearm suicides.
Utyasheva and Eddleston’s group, the Center for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, works with governments in South and East Asia, where most cases occur, to introduce similar regulations and save lives. Already their work has contributed to major policy change in Nepal, which restricted the two pesticides responsible for the majority of pesticide suicides in the country following CPSP research and advice; GiveWell, which has offered incubation funding to the group, estimates that this policy change will save hundreds of lives every year.
The Center’s work is a great example of what’s possible when committed researchers and advocates find a neglected cause and begin to push. Before the CPSP, there was no organization like it working on the pesticide suicide problem across borders and recommending best practices. Utyasheva and Eddleston noticed that gap and acted, and the biggest gains from their work may still be ahead of them.