¿Uruguay au-naturel?

The agro-export model increases the use of pesticides threefold in eight years


At present, more than 10 million kilos of agrotoxic substances are applied yearly on Uruguay’s fields, creating a serious environmental problem and acutely and chronically impacting the health of producers and consumers. According to information from the government’s General Board of Agricultural Services, every year Uruguay imports 51 million dollars worth of agro-toxics substances.




Ninety-seven to ninety-nine percent of the agrotoxic substances (fungicides, insecticides, herbicides) applied in the fields do not even achieve their intended purpose, as they are lost in the air, soil or water, and only a small percentage eventually reaches its planned “destination.” From 1997 to 2005 pesticide imports increased by 350 percent in Uruguay, according to data from the General Board of Agricultural Services (DGSA), an agency that operates under the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishery (MGAP), which is responsible for authorizing the sale of 294 active principles and 805 brands of pesticides, 43 of which are banned or severely restricted in the rest of world. Among these are: aldicarb, sodium arsenite, azinphos-methyl, methyl bromide, carbofuran, methamidophos, methomyl, paraquat and parathion-methyl, which are sold under different brand names and are category I pesticides, that is, the most toxic.


There is little awareness in Uruguay about the degree of chemical residues present in fruits, vegetables, milk, meats, cereals, yerba mate, and oilseeds. In 2004, through an initiative of the Municipal Government of Montevideo (IMM), the Department of Food Technology of the School of Agronomy, University of the Republic, and the Managing Board of the Model Market conducted a research study on the quality of fruits and vegetables and their agrotoxic contamination levels. After analyzing pesticides in 200 samples of the leading fruits and garden vegetables (apple, peach, strawberry, tomato, lettuce, potato, pumpkin, spinach, and others), the results revealed that 28 percent of the samples had no detectable residues, 65 percent had residues below the Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) established by the CODEX (the joint FAO and WHO food program), and 7 percent had residues above those maximum levels. A very significant number of fruits and vegetables were found to have more than one agrotoxic substance and in some cases more than five chemical products were detected in the same food. This poses an additional risk, as the actual health damage caused by the combined effects of two or more agrotoxic substances occurring in the same food can be much more severe than that produced by only one of these substances. The combination of residues from the chemicals contained in each of these toxic substances can result in a greater percentage of food having a higher residual content than what is permitted, which would mean that the percentage of food containing agrotoxic residues above the admissible limits would most likely be significantly greater.

The United States requires a 77-day waiting period to harvest apples after the application of Mancozeb, while Uruguay requires a mere 12 days. Does this mean that degradation is quicker in Uruguay? No, the reason for this shorter period is to increase product sales and frequency of use.


Due to technical constraints, the study did not look for residues of Mancozeb or Dithane, the most widely used pesticide in the country and the most commonly used in fruits and vegetables (peaches, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, among others). According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Mancozeb is a carcinogenic product which affects reproduction and the endocrine system. When degraded it turns into a substance called ETU (ethylthiourea) which is even more toxic than the active principle that generated it. ETU is also produced when food contaminated with Mancozeb is cooked.


But that’s not the only problem. Uruguay’s recommended waiting periods for agrotoxic substances are not always the same as those established in the first world. The United States, for example, requires a 77-day waiting period to harvest apples after the application of Mancozeb, while Uruguay requires a mere 12 days. Does this mean that degradation is quicker in Uruguay? No, the reason for this shorter period is to increase product sales and frequency of use.

Fruits are subjected to a very significant amount of insecticides and fungicides from sprouting to harvesting. Apple crops, for example, use 100 kilos of agrotoxic substances per hectare in applications conducted from August to March.

If this weren’t enough, after the fruits are harvested they are once again sprayed with chemical products which allow them to be preserved longer in the open.


Moreover, recent studies conducted by the School of Chemistry of the University of the Republic found agrotoxic substances in five of the leading brands of yerba mate consumed in Uruguay. Uruguay has no regulations establishing a maximum toxic substance residue level for yerba mate, as it does for tea and coffee. The study detected traces of several organophosphorous agrotoxic substances in low concentration in all the yerbas analyzed.


Uruguay evidences an increase in the use of agrotoxic substances, particularly herbicides and insecticides, as shown in the table below.


Evolution in tons of agrotoxic imports 1999 – 2005


Type of pesticide
















































Source: Input Control Department. DGSA/MGAP


In the case of herbicides, the increase may be due to a large extent to Glyphosate, which accounts for half or more than half of the tons of herbicides imported in 2005. This agrotoxic substance is used in direct sowing of conventional and transgenic crops, a technique that over the last few years has become very widespread in the country and the region. In the case of insecticides, the increase registered in imports can also be linked to the significant expansion of soybean crops in Uruguay.


Most producers ignore the risks they are exposed to when they apply agrotoxic substances. These substances can cause acute intoxication, which is detected at the time of application or immediately after, with noticeable symptoms such as vomiting, dizziness, headache, and blurry vision; but they can also cause chronic intoxication, which is only manifested several years after being exposed in applications or after eating contaminated food, through fully developed diseases such as cancer, immune and endocrine system alterations, brain damage, conditions affecting the nervous system, allergies, birth defects (teratogenesis), liver dysfunctions, miscarriages, and skin and sensory organ damage.


Like the rest of the region, Uruguay is firmly consolidating an agro-export model based on single-crop farming (eucalyptus, soybean, pine, corn), meat and milk production and export, and the advancement of the agricultural frontier.

The application of this model has serious social, environmental and public health consequences. While it may be beneficial in the short-term –and even this is highly debatable-, in the medium and long-term it will lead to increases in Government spending, as the State will have to face problems in terms of natural resources, rising marginality and poverty, and high incidence of diseases.

En Colonia, Fernando Queirós Armand Ugón*

© Rel-UITA

6 de febrero de 2007





* Agronomist



Literature consulted


Agrotóxicos, remedios peligrosos. Análisis de la situación de los plaguicidas más tóxicos en Uruguay [Agrotoxic substances, dangerous remedies. Analysis of the situation of the most toxic pesticides in Uruguay]. Sebastián Elola. RAPAL/CEUTA. June 2004

Agrotóxicos: el síndrome “todo bien” [Agrotoxic substances: the “everything’s cool” syndrome]. Alberto Gómez. CEUTA. May 2005.

Determinación de Residuos de Plaguicidas Organofosforados en Yerba Mate. [Determination of Organophosphorous Pesticide Residues in Yerba Mate]. Virginia Villagrán – Joaquín González. Agrochemicals Course II, Pharmacognosis and Natural Products Course. School of Chemistry. University of the Republic. 2005.

Pesticidas y Agrotóxicos. Veneno en la piel [Pesticides and Agrotoxic Substances. Poison on the skin]. Nausícaa Palomeque, “¿Qué Pasa?” Supplement “El País” Newspaper. April 2006.

Producción Agroecológica – Orgánica en el Uruguay. Principales conceptos,

situación actual y desafíos [Agroecological – Organic Production in Uruguay. Main concepts, current situation and challenges]. Raquel Barg and Fernando Queirós.

RAPAL. January 2007.

Sembrando venenos - cosechando destrucción [Sowing poison - harvesting destruction]. RAPAL  http://www.chasque.net/rapaluy. December 2006.



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