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Danger looms as pesticides reign supreme on India’s farms 

Deadly pesticides continue to be indiscriminately sold and used in the absence of legislation, regulatory processes and food testing mechanisms
Last Updated : 18 November 2023, 21:10 IST
Last Updated : 18 November 2023, 21:10 IST

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Bengaluru: On November 14, the European Commission sounded an alarm. The import of turmeric powder from India into the EU territories posed a ‘serious’ risk, it said. The notification came after residues of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide banned in several countries, were found in a sample tested in Germany. Chlorpyrifos was banned after scientific evidence found that it posed a direct threat to the health of children. 

Interestingly, chlorpyrifos was one of 27 deadly pesticides that the Union government proposed to ban in 2020. However, it soon made a u-turn, choosing to limit the ban to four pesticides. The Centre’s volte-face was the result of heavy lobbying from the agrochemical industry, activists who have worked on the issue for decades said.

The unmitigated and unregulated use of such toxic pesticides persists today. Data from the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare shows about 60,000 tonnes of chemical pesticides were used annually between 2017-18 and 2021-22. Farmers are waging a multi-pronged war, forced to contend with new pests and diseases. For them, spraying more pesticides is a measure taken to “avoid the risk” of losing the crop.

Parvataiah, a paddy farmer from Hosahalli near Gangavathi of Koppal district, said the situation has changed drastically in the last few years. “We are advised by companies to spray chemicals even before planting. Seeds are coated with one chemical or the other before sowing. This started about four years ago. You have to understand that no farmer is in a position to take the risk of a lower yield,” he said.

Paddy farmers more or less engage in a gamble when they begin cultivation due to the high input costs, Parvataiah explained. The situation of those who cultivate RNR 15048, a variety dubbed 'sugar-free rice' by marketers from Tamil Nadu, illustrates the monumental change in the use of pesticides. 

 "While the department issues correct information, companies come to the village and hold a camp where pesticide usage is promoted on an LCD screen. The screen shows images of rich green crops. Regardless of what officials recommend, farmers are convinced by the advertisements or shops selling pesticides. So, in the place of 60 gram fungicide or pesticide, more than double is sprayed just to make sure that they get the best crops," he said.

The consequence is that consuming food contaminated with pesticides has devastating short-term and long-term impacts. In fact, a study by Pesticides Action Network-India (PAN-India) found that 56 pesticides used in India were carcinogenic. 

Close to 38 insecticides had immunotoxic effects and 81 caused disruption in endocrine and hormone function. “Children are especially vulnerable to the impacts of pesticides as they can affect brain development and cognitive functions,” the report said.

Food contamination presents both immediate and long-term danger to consumers. It is vegetables, more than foodgrains and pulses, that contain more residue, reveal tests conducted by the Pesticide Residue & Food Quality Analysis Laboratory, University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur.

Residue monitoring

Prabhuraj  A, professor of agricultural entomology, and the head of the lab, said that the results were sent to the Centre, which is involved in a national-level project to study residues. “We test about 100 samples every month, of which at least 40 are vegetables. Cereals and pulses make up the rest. About 30% of the vegetables contain residues. In a sample, the presence of one pesticide may be below the maximum residue level (MRL) but what is concerning is results that indicate the residues of multiple pesticides, sometimes four to six kinds,” he said.

The professor said the most commonly found insecticides belong to the class of monocrotophos (acutely toxic to birds and humans, banned in September 2023), pyrethroids (which cause dizziness and convulsions among other serious health issues), as well as fungicides (affecting skin and eyes).

The reason behind the concurrent use of multiple pesticides, according to Sujay Hurali, an entomologist at UAS Raichur’s research station at Gangavathi, owes to farmers’ hope to better protect crops. “In rice samples, we are seeing an increased fungicide residue. Farmers, especially those in Andhra Pradesh’s Godavari belt, spray it 10 to 15 days before the harvest. They believe it gives a polished look to the grain and helps in marketing,” he said.

Though the Union government launched the Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level programme in 2005-06, very little data is available to understand the depth of the problem. The scheme is steered by the All India Network Project on Pesticide Residue (AINP-PR) under the ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi. 

2019 marked one of the first years that AINP-PR’s work was made public after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) reported on the testing of the 23,660 samples of vegetables, fruits, spices, curry leaves, rice, wheat, pulses, egg, meat and water. About 20 per cent of the samples (4,510) tested positive for pesticide residues. Of the 12,821 vegetable samples tested, 18.7 per cent had residues. Of the 2,274 samples of fruits, 21.7 per cent had residues.

The FSSAI claimed that pesticide residues exceeded the safety limits (MRL) in only 2.2 per cent of the 23,660 samples. However, activists have long pointed out problems in India’s MRL when compared with safer limits set by countries like the United States of America and those in the European Union. The difference in standards for pesticide residue is one reason why many consignments originating in India are red-flagged as contaminated food.

Additionally, research has shown that the use of pesticides banned elsewhere but for India, even within ‘recommended’ or ‘safety’ levels, also contributes to biodiversity loss. Continued use was found to impact invertebrates and fungi that promote soil health. For farmers caught in uncertainty and battling inflation, climate change and a volatile agriculture market, the long-term importance of biodiversity has not yet hit home.

Opacity in proceedings related to the reporting and regulation of pesticide use has not helped matters. In January 2023, the FSSAI filed a report before the National Human Rights Commission in a matter pertaining to pesticide contamination in food crops. The statutory body had issued a notice to FSSAI to curb the excessive use of pesticides. An official in the FSSAI’s head office told DH that the report was part of the NHRC proceedings and could not be shared.

In the absence of data regarding regular monitoring within the country, alerts sent out by bodies like the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) or the Food and Drug Administration of the United States serve as regular reminders.

Chandra Bhushan, an expert who has studied the issue for years, noted that the products under testing in the EU and the US were supposed to be of superior, ‘export quality’. “Unfortunately, within India, there is a lack of information about regular tests. Testing of random samples is key to understanding the quality of the food products we are consuming,” he said.

The RASFF has raised more than 100 alerts annually on pesticide residue in rice, cereals, fruits and other food products from India. This year alone, 128 alerts were issued. Of the 802 alerts raised between 2020 and 2023, the RASFF classified 589 (73.4%) as serious, 22 as potentially serious and 15 as a ‘potential risk’. Only 34 were ‘non-serious’ alerts.

Legislation 

It was accidental contamination of food samples in 1958 that resulted in over 100 deaths, that prompted the government to put the Insecticides Act 1968 in place. However, currently, the law has been found to be highly inadequate in dealing with the growing number of agrochemicals flooding the fields, as desperate farmers pin their hope on the toxic chemicals to protect their crops.

Based on the information obtained under RTI, activists from the PAN-India revealed that a whopping 62 pesticides that are used widely in India were only ‘deemed to be registered’ with no specified MRL.

Narasimha Reddy Donthi, policy expert and honorary director of PAN-India, said India is in urgent need of a pesticide bill which would address the challenges of the current situation. “The first draft of an updated bill came in 2008 but nothing happened. The latest one is the Pesticide Management Bill of 2020 which had some good provisions but it has been put aside due to the pesticide industry lobby. So, we are not only accepting pesticides that were there before 1968 but also new ones which are only 'deemed to be registered' without the necessary safety precautions,” he said.

Donthi said the proposed bill has been pending ever since it was referred to a standing committee. The bill still contains the provisions that allow deemed registration. “The new bill should clarify several legal matters to ensure hazardous agrochemicals are checked,” he said. PAN-India has been highlighting India’s poor record in regulating pesticides. 

An expert committee set up in 2013 by the Union government to review 66 pesticides banned or restricted in other countries, but used in India, made recommendations in 2015 to check the serious health impacts caused by the use of pesticides. However, there has been little progress on the recommendations. 

Bio-pesticides promoted as ‘natural’ alternatives to chemicals, have also posed a major challenge due to poor regulation. Parvataiah said a cocktail of chemicals is often sold under the tag of biopesticides and small and marginal farmers in villages often fall for the scam.

Spurious pesticides

The farmer’s claim is backed by the data from the Agriculture Department where the vigilance wing is seeing a steady increase in the number of use cases of spurious pesticides (illegal or non-genuine pesticides), including some sold as bio-pesticides. 

In 2019-20, officials recorded three incidents and seized 629 litres and 816 kg of spurious pesticides. Until last month, the number of cases has increased to 70 with seizures going up to 9,119 litres and 14,534 kg. “Spurious pesticides are increasing because the demand continues to grow. We are creating awareness among farmers,” a senior official told DH.

However, even this crackdown on spurious products, Donthi noted, spurious products was aimed more at protecting patented formulas of 'big companies'. “We need a structural change and that has to begin with rules that prioritise health and safety. Implementation of such regulations will reveal the truth about the real quality of food products we are consuming,” he said.

Some developed countries have woken up to the challenge, with the EU banning and the US restricting several nicotinoids, a group of widely used insecticides found to be hazardous to pollinating bees. The EU went a step further, adopting a resolution in February 2023 to restrict the import of products that contain traces of nicotinoids above a set MRL.

While the restriction will come into force after 36 months, India has already raised concerns at the World Trade Organisation and urged the EU to defer the matter to ensure that the export of agricultural and horticultural products is not affected.

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Published 18 November 2023, 21:10 IST

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