Giving the bird: chemical farming’s shocking consequences

Giving the bird: chemical farming’s shocking consequences

Our addiction to chemical fertilisers and pesticides has taken a terrible toll on wildlife and human health, writes Dr Andrew Venter 

First published by Daily Maverick 

I recently had the privilege of witnessing a biodiversity “spectacular” at the Karkloof Conservation Centre, nestled in the foothills of KwaZulu-Natal’s Karkloof Mountains.

As the sun set, flocks of majestic wattled and sonorous grey-crowned cranes flew in from the surrounding countryside and settled in the shallow waters of a local pan.

We were entranced by their beauty, their aerial prowess, distinctive calls and grace. The wattle crane is particularly majestic, with mature adults standing up to 1.7m.

There were about 30 of them. This equates to over 10% of South Africa’s wattled crane population.

Bad farming methods has taken wattled cranes to the brink.

A form of socialising. Twenty-seven in one photograph at the Wattle Crane hide in the Karkloof Conservancy. Picture: Jacquie Van Der Westhuizen

Between 1970 and 2000, the South African wattled crane population crashed to under 200 birds. To blame was the conversion of their habitat for agriculture, the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and the proliferation of power lines across their airspace.


Since 2000, intensive conservation efforts have led to a 50% recovery, with around 300 birds today, a notional success by any standard.

The wattled crane is our “canary”.

Growing up, I was told stories of miners taking canaries with them underground. The birds were  more vulnerable to toxic air than the miners and would die first, warning the miners to escape.

A century of unsustainable farming practices, anchored by the indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals and the destruction of grasslands, forests and river systems, has transformed vast areas of our planet into sterile, unproductive and often toxic landscapes.

Enchanting in their beauty – grey crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum) at the Karkloof Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal. Although the grey crowned crane remains common over some of its range, it faces threats to its habitat due to drainage, overgrazing, and pesticide pollution. The South African population of this species is estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000 adults. The Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland lists it as Endangered. Pictures: Jacquie van der Westhuizen

Bad farming methods has taken wattled cranes to the brink.

The wattled crane (Grus carunculata) – thought to be among the most habitat sensitive of all the crane species. By the late 1980’s the Wattled Crane was in critical danger of extinction, with only 80 breeding pairs remaining in the wild. Since then conservation efforts have lifted the bird’s numbers to around 300.

Many of us know about DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was developed as an insecticide and is globally infamous for its environmental impact.

Photo: Wikimedia

It was discovered by a Swiss chemist, Paul Hermann Muller, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948 “for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods”.

Contemporary scientists warned that DDT would lead to environmental destruction on a scale not seen before, but were ignored in the face of the early success of DDT in eradicating malaria and its ability to suppress insect activity.


Widely touted as a miracle insecticide, its use grew exponentially, leaving a trail of long-term environmental destruction globally.

In 1962, Rachel Carson exposed the environmental impact of DDT in her book, Silent Spring, catalyzing one of the first environmental movements anchored by a campaign to ban DDT.

Since then, a series of clinical studies have demonstrated that DDT is not only environmentally destructive, but that it is extremely dangerous to humans. Side effects range from decreased fertility to pancreatic cancer and autism in children whose mothers were exposed to the chemical during pregnancy.

Tragically, it is still used widely in 14 countries, including India and China.

We’re addicted to using toxic herbicides and pesticides, but don’t understand the long-term toxic impact of these chemicals on our environment and personal health.


Perhaps the best known more recent example is glyphosate. It was discovered in 1970 and is currently the world’s most widely produced herbicide by volume. This is despite growing scientific evidence of the risks it poses to human health and a series of US court cases that have found that glyphosate causes cancer.

In South Africa, this chemical is used widely to suppress the growth of “weeds” and is actively promoted in association with the use of genetically modified cotton, soya and maize designed to withstand the impact of this chemical.

As the body of evidence grows, demonstrating the impact of Glyphosate, we’re likely to see a reduction in its use, eventually condemning it to infamous celebrity “killer” status alongside DDT.

The question is… why are we willing to expose our lives and those of our loved-ones to experiments of this kind?

Angus McIntosh, a well-known regenerative farming activist, is outspoken in this regard. He says glyphosate can be found “in every loaf of bread sold in every shop in this country” and “in all processed foods, tinned foods and ready-made meals”.


He points out that, in the form of Roundup, it is widely used as a weed killer beyond our farming community, mentioning its use by Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and the Johannesburg Zoological Gardens, to make his point.

We have to do better.

Before World War II, successful farmers were those that understood their natural environments, “listening” to their soil, “respecting” their water supplies and “honoring” the interconnectedness of their activities with the natural world.

Since then, we’ve seen the farmers that embrace these values sidelined by corporate interests – promoting “modern” farming anchored by the use of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified crops.

The impact has been devastating, through the poisoning of soils and water systems, and destruction of biodiversity.

As our society reflects on the journey forward, recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and preparing for the system shocks that are coming as global warming accelerates, we have to find a better way to live on this planet.

Any activities that put short-term yields and profits ahead of the long-term implications for the environment and public health will come undone – as they eventually undermine the resilience of our human and natural systems.

We need to reflect on the majestic beauty of the wattled crane, its challenge to survive in the world we’ve created and the lessons we’ve learnt in our fight to save it.

  •  Dr Andrew Venter is the director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s operations in South Africa. Venter joined CISL SA from WILDTRUST, where he was chief executive for 19 years. Over this period, he led the development of WILDTRUST into one of the region’s largest and most influential environmental organisations. This story forms part of Roving Reporters  The Future We Want Series 

The Karkloof Conservancy’s Jacquie van der Westhuizen explains what makes Karkloof conservancy a little paradise for birders. Read more



Bad farming methods has taken wattled cranes to the brink.

The wattled crane (Grus carunculata) – thought to be among the most habitat sensitive of all the crane species. By the late 1980’s the Wattled Crane was in critical danger of extinction, with only 80 breeding pairs remaining in the wild. Since then conservation efforts have lifted the bird’s numbers to around 300. Photo Jacquie van der Westhuizen

>> Now read: Farmers still shudder at harm caused by DDT

Venter unfair – no-till farmers a force for good, says Charlie MacGillivray, chairman of the Karkloof Conservancy



About Author

Write a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*