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Goat Deaths Spark Debate Over Pesticide Abuse

By Du Caicai, Yuan Suwen and Pan Che
Farmers spray pesticide on their rice fields in Wenling, Zhejiang province, on June 27, 2016. 
Farmers spray pesticide on their rice fields in Wenling, Zhejiang province, on June 27, 2016. 

The deaths of over 100 goats that ate spring onion leaves exposed to a highly toxic pesticide have triggered a public outcry over the lack of regulations curbing the overuse of such chemicals in the country.

A video circulating online showed white foam congealed on the dead goats’ mouths, with a handful of animals struggling on the ground in a barn. The goats belonged to a farmer who lives in the city of Shouguang, 175 km (109 miles) east of Shandong province’s capital Jinan. Eighty of the farmer’s 298 goats died on Aug. 24, according to environmental activist Wang Chunsheng, who shot the video on the spot.

The farmer told the Beijing Youth Daily that the animals died within a few hours in the morning of Aug. 24 after eating spring onion leaves he had bought from a local wholesale vegetable reseller. Other farmers in the area also complained that their goats have died. All had bought feedstock from the same vendor, according to the activist.

Shouguang is a major vegetable wholesale hub in China that supplies fruits and vegetables to metropolises, including Beijing and Shanghai. The spring onion leaves were left over after the stocks were cleaned and stored in cold-storage for future sales.

On Sept. 1, the Shouguang city government confirmed on its official WeChat account that the deaths were caused by a banned chemical detected in the spring onions. It said that more than 25,000 kg (55,000 lbs) of the problematic item were sealed and destroyed.

The goat video went viral on Chinese social media and triggered a public outcry about the overuse of pesticides and lack of regulation on how much of these substances is used or sold. Unlicensed, small pesticide producers scattered across the country are reportedly putting a huge strain on regulators. Most of the country’s 250 million small farmers rely on these factories in remote areas for their supplies.

Wang Zengli, associate professor at China Agricultural University, said weed killers or insecticides are often overused in China because farmers don’t have the proper tools or enough knowledge on how to mix or dilute different chemicals, and believe their effects would be stronger if used in concentrated doses.

One way to curb the overuse of pesticides was to closely monitor the types of chemicals sold and their volumes. Wang said regulators needed to work harder to strengthen oversight on pesticide sales.

The toxic spring onions originated from Shenyang, Liaoning province. A farmer, only identified as Meng, who is suspected of having grown and sold the toxic product, was arrested on Aug. 27.

Shouguang police said Meng had sprayed the banned pesticide on the spring onions at the beginning of August and sold them to a wholesaler of the city on Aug. 22. No deaths or incidents of food poisoning have been reported linked to consuming these spring onions since then.

Contact reporter Pan Che (chepan@caixin.com)

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