How scientific is our outlook?

Synthetic pesticides

A farm in Haveri district. DH Photo/Anita Pailoor

Like in the past, 2019 also witnessed scores of farmworkers and farmers being hospitalised due to acute pesticide poisoning in different states of the country, not to mention cases of deaths. The “body burden” with pesticides, of citizens in rural Karnataka was recently reported in this newspaper, based on studies done by Karnataka State Agriculture Price Commission. There are reports of doctors themselves protesting and demanding a ban on a particular pesticide called paraquat in Odisha. It is nobody’s case to argue that these chemicals do not impact human health.

India’s regulation and use of synthetic pesticides are out of sync with the science of pest management in agriculture. Post-modern pest management science realises that trying to kill pests — which is what synthetic pesticides or BT crops that use genetic engineering try to do — is not the correct way to manage pests. That is because the pests will develop resistance to the poison, and newer ways of controlling the same pest have to be evolved. What is, however, quite easy to do is to prevent pests from damaging a crop, by understanding the complex web of nature, and by adopting agro-ecological approaches.

Also Read: Risk of multiple pesticide residues

In India, neither our agriculture extension nor our pesticide regulatory regime seems to have caught up with this new science of pest management. This does not mean that the knowledge of agro-
ecological practices and techniques of pest management do not exist. There is abundant scientific literature on this, as well as practical experience on the ground, including from a large programme on implementing the approach of non-pesticidal management of crops at scale in Andhra Pradesh. It only means that there is inadequate political will.

This is why India’s pesticides regulatory regime continues to allow the production and use of a very large number of synthetic pesticides even though they may have been banned in other countries. As petitioners in a Supreme Court public interest litigation on the subject, we listed 104 such “bannable” pesticides in India, including monocrotophos, glyphosate, acephate, quinalphos, paraquat, etc.

Also Read: Farmers, consumers and ecology fall prey to pesticides

In the name of harmonisation, our regulatory regime is ready to accept the data generated by the pesticide company elsewhere, but not ready to accept the ban and restriction decisions of other countries as the basis for similar action in India.

Conflict of interest

Within the regulatory regime, before registering a pesticide, there are no modalities to figure out if that pesticide is needed in the first instance, and if there are no other alternatives. Further, safety claims of pesticides are not independently verified during registration time and the data is not put out in public domain. For obvious reasons, the applicants would only provide data that is self-serving.

The inherent conflict of interest is conveniently ignored by the regulators. In fact, when pesticides are reviewed for taking decisions related to bans or restrictions, industry permeates those processes, and this is allowed every time. Further, there is no regulation of advertising and aggressive marketing of pesticides.

Meanwhile, a legal issue pertaining to the constitutional authority of a state government to prohibit particular pesticides has to be resolved too. Though the Constitution of India in Schedule VII, List II states that “Agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases” is a state subject, the Insecticides Act 1968 does not allow states to take up prohibitory orders on pesticides. It is time India tackled the severe shortcomings in its approach to synthetic pesticides, and ensured safer farming and food systems, and also thereby contribute to the prevention of farmers’ suicides.

(The writer is a convenor of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture)

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