Since the beginning of the year, exporters of India’s aromatic and long-grained basmati rice and officials from the commerce ministry have been deliberating on the issue arising out of stringent import norms imposed by the European Union (EU), which sharply slashed the level of a commonly used fungicide, Tricyclazole, in the rice imported into the continent.
The EU had cut the maximum residue limit (MRL) for Tricyclazole, a fungicide used in India to protect the paddy crop from a disease called ‘blast’, from 1 PPM to 0.01 PPM from December 31, 2017. This has put basmati rice exporters in a tough and challenging position.
Despite Indian authorities’ several communications to the EU stating that the fungicide can be phased out gradually over the next three years, the EU has stuck to its stand. This is expected to slow down India’s basmati rice exports to the EU in the current fiscal. It is likely to help India’s main competitor Pakistan, as it exports aromatic long-grained rice to the EU and its farmers do not use Tricyclazole. It has to be noted that farmers in Spain and Italy also use Tricyclazole on their paddy crop.
Officials from the All India Rice Exporters’ Association (AIREA) have stated that EU’s stringent MRL norms are unrealistic to meet. “At least two crop cycles are required to effect the desired change. Moreover, there is no scientific evidence that it is harmful to human health,” Vijay Setia, president, AIREA, said. The EU and the US are high-value markets for basmati rice exporters, although a major chunk of aromatic and long-grained rice is shipped to mostly Gulf countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Commerce ministry officials said, on an average, India annually exports 3.4-4 lakh tonnes of basmati rice to the EU (mainly to the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and France). The volume of annual basmati rice exports to the EU is around 10% of the country’s annual aromatic rice shipment. In anticipation of enforcement of stringent pesticides norms, in the last fiscal (2017-18), India exported more than 4.5 lakh tonnes of basmati rice to the EU, and in the current fiscal the shipment would be lower.
In the case of MRL for Tricyclazole, rice-importing countries do not have uniform tolerance limits. The US and Japan has fixed MRL at 3 PPM. However, the US does not allow the presence of pesticide residue like Isoprothiolane beyond 0.01 PPM.
Despite the absence of uniformity in global pesticide standards concerning food products, officials from the commerce and agriculture ministries, and rice industry, acknowledge the fact that India has to put its house in order as far as the use of pesticide usage is concerned. “We have started to screen our consignments (for possible pesticide traces) before being exported. We need regulatory support in terms of judicious use of pesticides by farmers. Educating farmers does take time,” a commerce ministry official said.
Pre-shipment testing of pesticide residues for export of basmati rice to the EU from the Basmati Export Development Foundation (BEDF) laboratory in Modipuram, Uttar Pradesh, or other National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL), have been made mandatory by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). There has to be greater thrust on promoting farming practices that reduce pesticide application by farmers and ensure that farmers have adequate knowledge about proper usage of pesticides.
Official data says that there are 16 lakh farmers, mostly in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and few pockets of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, engaged in basmati rice cultivation. It is grown in around 16 lakh hectares. India exports key varieties such as Pusa Basmati 1 and Pusa Basmati 6 to the EU, and these are cultivated by around 6 lakh farmers.
In the just-concluded kharif season (2018), to curb the use of fungicides, AIREA, in association with APEDA, conducted campaigns among basmati rice growers in many districts of Punjab, including Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur, Ferozepur and Pathankot. Punjab’s agriculture department has recruited volunteers to reach out to farmers about the negative impact of pesticides. The thrust of the campaign has also been to educate farmers against using pesticides especially four weeks prior to harvesting.
Agriculture ministry officials said farmers should use those pesticides that are recommended by state agricultural universities. “There has to be prescription for all kinds of chemical pesticides to be used for dealing with specific pests. Chemical shops must display the list of banned chemicals so that farmers make informed choices,” an official said.
As all the pesticides sold in the market are registered with the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee, under the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage of the agriculture ministry, the central government should be proactive, ensuring that banned pesticides are not in circulation.
All key players in the basmati rice value chain need to work together with farmers for ensuring good agricultural practices and exporters have to create a backward-linkage programme especially with farmers to ensure that traces of pesticides are eliminated in the production process itself. Minimum or judicious use of pesticides would improve and expand export potential of not only basmati rice, but also of all other agricultural products.
Senior consultant, ICRIER. Views are personal