The dispute over pesticide exports to the third world is reaching a crescendo. For years it has been a bitter debate. But it could come to a head this year as pressure builds at the grass roots and within international organizations for authorities in the industrialized world to act.
Within the past few months alone:
* The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution (with only the United States voting against it) urging stricter controls on the export of products, including pesticides, banned in the producing country.
* The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been charged with drawing up a ''code of conduct'' on the export of agrochemical products to the third world.
* The coordinating body for environmental protection organizations in Western Europe - the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels - held a major seminar earlier this month to mobilize public opinion on pesticide exports.
* A ''consumer interpol,'' i.e., information-exchange network, involving about 1 million people has been formed to gather data on international trade in hazardous products, including pesticides.
Add to these developments evidence - now becoming public - that improper use of pesticides kills people. Some scientists have put the number of pesticide poisonings in the third world at 375,000 a year and estimate that 10,000 of them are fatal.
''These figures are, in my view, extremely conservative,'' says David Bull, whose recent book ''A Growing Problem: Pesticides and the Third World'' has practically become required reading for environmentalists. ''Pesticide poisoning in many parts of the third world is an everyday occurrence which usually goes unrecognized or unreported.''
The many activities under way in various forums have the agrochemical industry worried. Of concern to Western European companies are possible new restrictions on pesticide exports to the third world.
David Bull, who is also the pesticide expert at the Oxford Famine Relief Committee (OXFAM), says West European manufacturers account for nearly two-thirds of the world's pesticide exports - four to five times that of companies based in the US - and that some countries, notably Britain and Switzerland, stand to lose much more than others if new restrictions come into force. Britain alone, according to Mr. Bull, accounts for about 15 percent of the world's pesticide exports, with half going to the third world.
In large part to fend off mounting criticism, the agrochemical industry has started taking the offensive in the debate, hammering out a ''code of conduct'' of its own and supporting the FAO decision to draft one as well in the near future.
The importing country must bear the final responsibility for protecting the environment and human health against the dangers of pesticides. This is a central point in a recent report by the Brussels-based International Group of National Associations of Agrochemical Manufacturers, ''Principles and Objectives of Product Stewardship and Good Marketing Practices in the Export of Pesticides.''
''It is in countries which have no government control of pesticides and their correct use wherein problems of health and environmental safety most likely could occur,'' the export guidelines say.
This is precisely the line taken by the European Commission, which has come under increasing pressure from West European public opinion to draft new legislation banning the export of certain pesticides to the third world.
''In most developing countries,'' explains the European Community's environmental affairs commissioner, Karl-Heinz Narjes, ''pesticides are an absolute necessity, both on health grounds and to protect crops. . . . To try and impose Community rules on nonmember countries or deny them supplies of pesticides they need could cause vexed political problems. Accordingly, the Commission's view is that it should be for the importing country to lay down its own rules for trade in these products.''
A UN resolution adopted Dec. 17 says that ''products which have been banned for domestic consumption and/or sale because they have been judged to endanger health and the environment should be sold abroad by companies, corporations, or individuals only when a request for such products is received from an importing country or when the consumption of such products is officially permitted in the importing country.'' The resolution was approved by a vote of 146 to 1, with no abstentions. The US cast the sole negative vote.
Not surprisingly, the agrochemical industry has reacted angrily to the UN vote. In the words of the industry's international organization, ''The banning or restriction of a product in one country does not signify that this same product cannot be used in another country; indeed, this other country may have economic and social conditions which lead it to carry out a completely different risk/advantage analysis.''
Resistance from the Western companies has not kept a strong movement within the European Parliament from pressing its campaign to have controls on EC pesticide exports to the third world tightened.
At the forefront of the campaign is Ernest Glinne of Belgium. As president of the Parliament's largest political group, the Socialists, he has proposed a resolution calling for a prohibition on the export of pesticides banned in the EC, and for a ''code of conduct'' to be laid down for EC-based multinational corporations supplying pesticides to third-world countries. His resolution also recommends that subsidies for pesticide exports be reduced. Support for the resolution, which is to be debated later this year, is said to be strong.
But some Euro-MPs have said they will oppose it. Alexander Sherlock (Conservative) of Britain says: ''Should the Community cease to export these products, they would still be freely available from Comecon countries (the East-bloc trading community), Israel, and the United States.''
Some experts have estimated that about 30 percent of the pesticides exported to the third world are either banned or severely restricted in the industrialized world. In Britain alone, according to David Bull, ''We know that 11 pesticides banned by British legislation or by EC directives are still being exported to developing countries.''
Consumer activists, however, say that they do not want to ban all pesticide exports to the third world. ''Many do a lot of good,'' Mr. Bull observes.
But at the very least, they say, manufacturers must emphasize to customers in developing countries the dangers, as well as the advantages, of pesticides. Mr. Bull claims that generally the information provided by manufacturers is inadequate. Often, the directions cannot be followed.
''Often the user information is only in English,'' he says, ''and instructions cannot be carried out because of local conditions. It's often too hot, for example, for handlers to wear protective clothing, or the clothing is unaffordable, or clean water supplies for washing after using pesticides simply aren't available.''
What he and other activists want is more consultation between the exporting company or country and the potential importing country before the sale.
However the dispute over pesticide exports to the third world is resolved - if it ever is - the noise from both sides is certain to reach a peak this year.
Euro-MP Glinne says: ''We're going to step up the pressure on legislators to put stricter controls on pesticide exports until something is done.''