Banning pesticides: Make haste slowly

Do these bans and restrictions have a scientific basis?

Farmers and the pesticide industry are agitated over three notifications issued since February that have proposed bans on about 30 chemical pesticides and restricted the spraying of glyphosate, a popular weed killer, only by licensed pest control operators. Do these bans and restrictions have a scientific basis?

The 27 chemicals proposed to be banned were identified by the Anupam Varma committee set up in 2013. Of these, 12 are insecticides, eight fungicides and seven herbicides. In terms of toxicity, six are green triangle or ‘unlikely harmful’, eight are blue triangle or slightly toxic, while the rest are moderately (2), highly (7), and extremely toxic (4).

A reason for the ban cited in the notification is the companies or industry associations did not submit reports of studies which the committee advised. When Crop Care Federation of India, a group mainly of Indian companies, was confronted with non-compliances, its chief scientific adviser Jagadish C Majumdar gave a molecule-wise reply. He said four molecules are not being defended so no studies were done. For 13 molecules, the required data has been given. For nine molecules, most but not all the data has been given. In one case, studies are under way.

According to the pesticide association, the actions of the authorities abridged the two-year time for completion of studies. The Registration Committee (RC) added new studies in addition to those recommended by the Varma committee. In view of these developments, the RC decided in April 2019 to extend the deadline for completion of studies to the end of last December, but then in July it reversed the decision, saying that the agriculture ministry had overruled it.

The reasons cited in the draft gazette notifications betray an eagerness to ban. The list of countries where the chemicals have been prohibited are drawn from the Pesticide Action Network website, an advocacy against chemical pesticides. Some of the countries cited—Syria, Saudi Arabia, Ivory Coast, Chad, Suriname, Mozambique, Palestine, Tongo and Senegal—cannot be models for an agricultural major like India. The UK’s Pesticide Properties Database, suggested as a reference site by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s (IARI) division of agricultural chemicals, says that of the 27 chemicals, 20 are approved for use in Australia and 18 in the US. In the EU, 13 are in use across all the 27 member-countries or in some of them, or they are approved but inactive.

A letter written by RK Chaturvedi, secretary, Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, to the agriculture ministry on June 2 shows little inter-ministerial coordination. He said there should be “wider stakeholder consultations” before further action is taken.

When contacted, Anupam Varma said the RC must “re-review” its decision to ban 27 chemicals. At a recent online conference, agriculture commissioner SK Malhotra said that the advantages of a plant protection chemical are known upfront, but their menacing aspects get discovered over time. But old need not mean dirty. All molecules go through a rigorous process of approval. As new knowledge becomes available, the molecules will have to be reviewed. The EU does this every 10 years; the US every 15 years. India must also move from ad hoc reviews to 10-year ones, as the Varma committee suggested.

India must also not allow the EU or any country to set its pesticide standards. The EU reduced its maximum residue level (MRL) for tricyclazole, a fungicide used for control of neck blast in rice, a hundred-fold to 0.01 parts per million (ppm) or 1 milligram per 100 kg from January 2018. Rice exporters faced rejection of consignments when traces of the chemical were found and wanted the fungicide banned. The MRL for the fungicide in the US is 3 ppm and in Japan 8 ppm.

Anupama (no surname), the head of IARI’s agricultural chemicals division, says there is a need for global harmonisation of pesticide MRLs through the World Health Organisation (WHO). Ashok K Singh, director, IARI, says nations will assert their right to fix food safety standards. Buyers will dictate terms. In 2017-18, the EU imported 3.93 lakh tonnes of Indian basmati; the top five West Asian countries bought 2.69 million tonnes. Singh says tricyclazole use could perhaps be prohibited only in Sirsa and Fatehabad districts of Haryana, which can meet India’s basmati exports to the EU.

The government’s restriction on the use of glyphosate—to be sprayed only by pest control operators—is inexplicable. The RC admits the herbicide is internationally classified as “slightly hazardous.” The WHO’s cancer research agency, the IARC, says it is “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on “limited” evidence in humans and “sufficient” evidence in experimental animals. US juries have recently imposed damages on Bayer CropScience which sells the chemical under the brand Roundup. Bayer has also agreed to settle the lawsuits for $10.5 billion, but has not admitted any harm. It is appealing the trial court orders. The US Environment Protection Agency has not banned the product. The EU has approved its use till December 2022. Yet the RC said it is banned in 20 countries citing Sustainable Pulse, a group that is opposed to chemical agriculture and GM crop technology.

Glyphosate is extensively used on crops like cotton, maize and soybean, which are genetically-modified to be resistant to it. In India, only a fifth of the cotton area is, illegally, planted with herbicide-tolerant cotton. Other farmers use it judiciously, unlike in the US or the EU. Pritam Singh, a progressive farmer of Sonipat, Haryana, who produces wheat and rice seed on 117 acres mainly for the IARI, says he sprays just 8 kg of glyphosate a year to remove weeds on the edges of fields. Milind Damle, a cotton grower of Yavatmal in Maharashtra, says it will cost him Rs 6,000 to remove weeds on an acre manually, whereas with glyphosate he can do the job in just Rs 1,000.

The author blogs at Views are personal

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