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Posted at: Aug 6, 2018, 12:44 AM; last updated: Aug 6, 2018, 12:46 AM (IST)AGRICULTURE

Pesticide: The silent killer

Despite the Supreme Court’s order to phase out some pesticides that are banned overseas, the Centre appears indecisive for reasons best known to it, while the states are hamstrung due to tweaking of rules, says Kavitha Kuruganti

The rejection of export consignments — basmati rice this time — due to excessive presence of pesticide residues is back in news. This has now become routine. According to an ICRIER study, there were 444 import refusal reports for basmati rice alone in the US between January 2014 and May 2017, mainly due to the presence of higher-than-approved levels of pesticide residues. If this is the case with export consignments from India, one wonders what the situation is with regard to residues in foods meant for domestic markets. There are obviously questions also on the health implications of such residues in our food and environment.

The government's Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at the National Level (MPRNL) data usually present a picture that is in stark contrast to independent studies. MPRNL reports that only around 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent of samples have been found with residues above Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), which is significantly lower than what other studies are reporting. There is also an unresolved debate around MRLs — whether they are indicators of food safety or not — that our regulators sidestep neatly. 

Meanwhile, the problem is not just with residues and chronic health impacts from such residues in our food as well as water. Acute poisoning due to exposure to pesticides is a matter of serious concern too, and this became a national debate last year when dozens of deaths and hundreds of hospitalisations were reported from Vidarbha. A Parliament reply on March 16, 2018 stated that in Punjab, 112 deaths were caused by inhalation of pesticides in 2015-16, 57 deaths in 2016-17 and 64 in 2017-18. This is an unacceptable violation of the fundamental right to life.

In India, pesticide usage is actually on the rise. The pesticide industry will of course present data to show per hectare usage disregarding the fact that unsafe usage practices as well as dangerous and more direct exposure pathways that make pesticides in our food and farming systems a matter of greater concern. 

It is surprising that chemical pesticide consumption in India is still on the rise despite their ill effects on human health and the environment. However, consumer awareness is also on the rise. This gets reflected in their purchase behaviour as the organic food sector posts an impressive growth. Farming is, indeed, possible without the use of synthetic pesticides, which can actually be more profitable. 

Adoption of ecological agriculture (organic or natural farming) brings down costs and indebtedness, increases profitability in farming, and even reduces farm suicides. We are yet to come across a single case of an organic farmer committing suicide in India due to agrarian distress. One laments the fact that no studies have been taken up by governments to figure out if there is any connection between pesticide usage (that too of OP pesticides which are consumed more in India), consequent nervous system impacts, depression/suicidal tendencies and unabated spate of farm suicides in certain pockets of the country. 

It is worth noting that higher yields have been documented  in many crops  without the use of chemical pesticides. This is something that the ICAR's All India Network Project on Organic Farming vouches for, from multiple years and sites of trials of comparing organic with conventional farming. It is also not out of place that Malthusian scare-mongering is not a tactic that the pesticide industry and other proponents can deploy anymore, given that our problem seems to be of surpluses in production and not food scarcity. 

What is worrisome is the fact that state governments are not empowered legally to prohibit (at least de facto) the sales and usage of pesticides in their jurisdictions. This appears to have happened due to some silent and devious tweaking of rules related to licensing authority that state governments had in the past. Punjab has also been thwarted in its attempt on this front with regard to 20 pesticides.

Meanwhile, the Centre has been dilly-dallying on a decision to ban and phase out, from India at least, some of those pesticides that have been banned elsewhere. Though the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to take a decision by June 2018 on this matter, no decision has been made. Farming is, indeed, possible without chemical fertilisers and our farmers, consumers and environment can only benefit from such agriculture. We now wait for the government to show its political will on this matter. 

Banned globally, but registered in India

  • 66 pesticides either banned/restricted in various countries
  • The Supreme Court has banned the use of Endusulfan
  • Fenitrothion is banned in India recently
Position of various legislations in India

  • The Insecticides Act of 1968: Archaic, still existent
  • Pesticide Management Bill 2008: Inconclusive
  • Pesticide Management Bill 2017: In the making
Anupam Verma Committee on 66 banned pesticides

Recommendation No of pesticides
To continue
18
To review in 2018 27
To phase out by 2020

6
Completely ban 14
Subjudice

1
— The writer is a National Convener of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA)

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