Slow death, fast profits

Rampant use of pesticides
Last Updated 21 October 2010, 16:37 IST

The next time you serve up a good old ‘wholesome’ meal of rice and various vegetables, you will probably take in half a milligram of pesticide also. That would be more than 40 times what an average North American person would consume.

India is one of the world’s largest users of pesticides and a profitable market for the corporations that manufacture them. Ladyfinger, cabbage, tomato and cauliflower in particular may contain dangerously high levels because farmers tend to harvest them almost immediately after spraying. Fruit and vegetables are sprayed and tampered with to make them more colourful, and harmful fungicides are sprayed on fruit to ripen them in order to rush them off to market.

Research by the School of Natural Sciences and Engineering at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore has indicated disturbing trends in the increased use of pesticide. In 2008, it reported that many crops for export had been rejected internationally due to high pesticide residues.

Kasargod in Kerala is notorious for the indiscriminate spraying of endosulfan. The government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala aerially sprayed the harmful pesticide on cashews for a period of over 20 years. Consequently, it got into rivers, streams and drinking water. Families and their children have been living with physical deformities, cancers and disorders of the central nervous system ever since.

Officials and the pesticide companies benefited from the spraying. At the time, cashew was grown without pesticides throughout Kerala, but the government run plantation invested millions of rupees of public money in spraying the deadly pesticide. Endosulfen poisoning cases also emerged elsewhere, including Karnataka.

Monsanto’s controversial Round Up is now being used in place of endosulfan, which is in fact still being used in various parts of the country despite the health dangers.
According to the writer Marie-Monique Robin, whoever controls the food (and pesticide) business controls the world. She claims that Monsanto, backed by the US government, wants to do this through its genetically manipulated (GM) seeds and its pesticides and weedicides. Monsanto already controls 84 per cent of the global GM seeds market.
Monsanto has been responsible for manufacturing polychlorinated biphenols that cause cancer, dioxins that lead to chloracne, GM bovine growth hormone that produce mastitis in cattle and genetically modified organisms containing insect toxins, including GM corn, GM soya and Bt cotton, which are strongly associated with a range of health hazards.

Mass death
It also produced Agent Orange which the US dropped on Vietnam to destroy jungle and consequently led to mass death, disease and deformities. In June 2001, adding insult to injury, Monsanto was accused by farmers of Ninh Thuan province of pressuring them to use genetically modified seeds that resulted in corn and maize crop failures and economic ruin.
What’s more, many of its tactics, claims and advertising have been questionable and sometimes downright illegal. In Indonesia, the corporation bribed more than 140 government officials to have its Bt cotton released without an environmental risk assessment.

Dr Meryl Hammond, founder of the Campaign for Alternatives to Pesticides, recently told a Canadian parliament committee that a raft of studies published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals point to strong associations between chemical pesticides and serious health consequences, including endocrine disruption and fertility problems, birth defects, brain tumours and various types of cancer.

The committee heard testimony from 85 witnesses and analysed over 50 briefs, which produced a frightening overview on the effects of pesticides and their pervasiveness in the environment.

There is also evidence demonstrating a potentially dangerous link between many pesticides and naturally occurring substances. For example, a British study done way back in the 1970s and reported in the journal ‘Nature’ indicated that the insecticide carbaryl can combine with nitrites from food additives in the stomach and create a carcinogenic and highly mutagenic substance.

In addition to health risks, there are the well documented issues relating to seed patenting, biodiversity and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. There are also concerns over dead soil. A recent scientific study carried out in India by the Navdanya organisation found that Bt cotton had significantly reduced vital soil enzymes and bacteria, so much so that within a decade of planting GM cotton, or any GM crop with Bt genes, the destruction of soil organisms could be complete, resulting in dead soil unable to produce food.

But there is hope. Earlier this year, India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh halted the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, the world’s first genetically modified eggplant containing insecticidal toxin protein. Ramesh was widely praised for not giving in to intense pressure from the USA and vested interests.

Pesticides and GM food can cause serious damage to health, but the manufacturers have invested so much and possess great influence. Throughout the world, the public is increasingly calling these companies to account. In many respects, there are parallels with the tussle with tobacco companies over lung cancer. But this time the effects are much more pervasive and impact the entire planet.

If someone was standing in front of you threatening your life or the lives of your children, wouldn’t you take action? There’s no difference between that situation and what the corporations are doing to your food.

(Published 21 October 2010, 16:37 IST)

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