It's a common story across China: the young people have jobs or do business in the cities, leaving the elderly to tend to the village farms. Auntie Ye is illiterate, like so many of the honeysuckle growing farmers in the area. When asked how to manage powdery mildew, she takes out from her basket a bottle of carbendazim. She selects her pesticide based on shape and colour, rather than the dense lines of description printed on the bottle stickers.
A farmer shows us the pesticides she applies to her honeysuckle plants. Stream Village, Pingyi County, Shandong. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
In regards to how to use these pesticides, Auntie Ye says she's always careful to pay attention to any recommendations given to her by the pesticide sellers. But not once has she been told which pesticides are highly toxic, or directed to avoid skin contact. Wearing gloves and masks seems, to her, an unnecessary precaution. As far as she knows pesticides haven't been banned by national legislation so they must be safe. Yet also in her hand is a bottle of omethoate that has, in fact, been banned by the State.
In this area of Shandong, farmers breed chickens as well as grow honeysuckle. Stream Village, Pingyi County, Shandong. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
In the absence of proper guidance regarding pesticide use, Auntie Ye sees no reason to separate her vegetable garden from her honeysuckle fields, and applies the same pesticides to both. Her grandson is now eight years old, and often plays in the fields - despite the dangers pesticide spraying poses to him. Auntie Ye's believes – incorrectly – that washing the vegetables is enough to remove any pesticide residue.
The only creatures in her home she protects from the pesticides are her chickens - she senses they are more sensitive to the chemical's deadly effects. So she places fencing around the chicken shed and tries to avoid letting them have direct contact to the pesticides.
This story is part of our investigation: "Heal the Herbs" that reveals a cocktail of pesticide residues on Chinese medicinal herbs.