Why food safety should not come at cost of food security

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Published: July 20, 2016 6:08:51 AM

Environmentalists, traditionalists and wellness advisers seem to believe that pesticides are dispensable. They do not see them as crop protection chemicals

The ICAR must realise that its job is not only to monitor, but also to communicate. It should be less wary of the media and should be active on platforms such as Twitter. We must keep in mind that food safety should not come at the cost of food security.The ICAR must realise that its job is not only to monitor, but also to communicate. It should be less wary of the media and should be active on platforms such as Twitter. We must keep in mind that food safety should not come at the cost of food security.

During Onam last year, political parties in Kerala competed to provide pesticide-free organic vegetables. The Indian Express reported that the Communist Party had leased in more than 2,000 acres for organic farming and had set up over a thousand outlets to sell organic produce. The Congress party was reported to have engaged self-help groups for the purpose. Tamil Nadu’s health department was required to certify that vegetables being exported to the state had pesticide residues within permissible limits.

Organic has become a fetish. People see the skull and crossbones when they look at vegetables, which they think are doused with chemicals. Sikkim has become wholly organic. The Centre is promoting traditional, chemical-free farming. The area under certified organic farming has increased 17-fold—to 7.23 lakh hectares in 10 years—the agriculture ministry says (this is just 0.5% of the country’s total sown area.) It wants another 5 lakh hectares added in three years.

Environmentalists, traditionalists and wellness advisers seem to believe that pesticides are dispensable. They do not see them as crop protection chemicals. The opposition suits the ideological positions of those on the far right and far left, because all the 260 pesticides approved for use in the country have been developed by multinationals. But is pristine agriculture possible? Can we go back to the pre-Green Revolution days? More importantly, do consumers have valid reasons to be terrified?

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has been monitoring pesticide residues in food commodities since 2005. As many as nine organisations and ministries with 25 accredited laboratories are involved. They follow standardised international protocols.

Of the 1,13,744 samples of rice, wheat, pulses, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, honey and water analysed between 2008 and 2015, only 2,346 samples—or 2.06% of the total—were found to have pesticide traces above the maximum residue level (MRL).

The MRL and the safe waiting period—between the last spray and harvesting—are determined on the basis of supervised field trials done at 15 centres of an all-India ‘network’ project on pesticide residues. It was started in 1984.

It develops protocols for safe use of pesticides and recommends good agricultural practices.

When a company wants its pesticide brand to be approved for use on a particular crop, it approaches a registration body based in Faridabad, Haryana. The food standards authority fixes the MRL based on toxicological studies, the likely daily consumption of a particular food item which has been sprayed with the chemical, its acceptable daily intake (ADI) and the residue data generated during the supervised trials. The ADI is the amount of a chemical that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without harm.

The MRL for Fluopicolide on grapes, for example, is 0.02 milligrams per kg of the fruit (assuming that the safe waiting period of 32 days between harvest and the last spray has been observed). The ADI is 0.079 milligrams per kg of body weight. If a person weighing 50 kg ate 105 gm of grapes spayed with the chemical, she would ingest 0.0021 milligrams per day, which is just 0.05% of the ADI of 3.95 milligrams per day for that person.

Farmers in India do not generally care about safety. They often spray indiscriminately, and on the advice of retailers who may prescribe what they have in stock even if it is not recommended for a crop. Excessive spraying, use of inappropriate pumps, resorting to cocktails, non-observance of safe waiting periods and the use of spurious chemicals are not uncommon.

So, it is a surprise that only 2% of samples were found to have residues above safe limit. Of course, samples of chemicals not approved for a crop, and for which the MRL has not been fixed, were not counted. Even if they were, the findings may not have been alarming. The ICAR is now generating data to fix the MRL for these chemicals.

According to KK Sharma, a residue chemist and coordinator of the ICAR’s national pesticide residue monitoring project, fewer fruit and vegetable samples in India were found to have residues above the maximum limit, than in the UK and Europe. Of the 60,432 Indian samples analysed between 2008 and 2015, residues were detected in 15.5% (detection does not mean they are harmful). Only in 2.4% of the samples were they above the maximum limit. In the US, 2.2% of the samples were above the MRL, in the UK 3.4%, and in the European Union 3.4%.

Surprisingly, the ICAR found a higher percentage of the so-called pesticide-free organic vegetables with residues above the MRL. Of the 166 samples taken from Hyderabad, West Bengal, Bangalore, Lucknow, Kerala, Delhi and Chennai in 2014-15, residues were detected in 27% of the samples, and in 4.8% of the cases the traces were above the maximum permitted.

“Pesticides are like antibiotics,” says Sharma. They are required to protect plants from pests and diseases, and minimise harvest losses estimated at 20-30%. Like antibiotics, they should be taken judiciously, he says.
Currently, only half of the sown area is covered by pesticides. The coverage should be extended to the other half too, says Sharma. That will allow us to produce more from the same amount of land. He finds the current debate skewed towards food safety at the cost of food security.

The scaremongering creates business opportunities. A Kerala Agricultural University professor involved in monitoring pesticide residues has created a commercially hit vegetable scrub. On testing, the ICAR found it to be less effective than even plain water!

Sharma says that reports about Endosulfan causing physical deformities in a Kerala village, or unacceptable levels of pesticides in soft drinks, or very high levels of Organochlorines in Delhi vegetables (according to Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Laboratory) have not been found to be true.

The ICAR itself must realise that its job is not only to monitor, but also to communicate. It should be less wary of the media and should be active on platforms such as Twitter. How about reassuring the people of Kerala before Onam in September?

Vivian Fernandes is the editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in

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