18 August 2014

Pesticide Documentation in Tea estates © Vivek M. / Greenpeace


"Fruits and vegetables that Delhiites consume everyday are practically unfit for human consumption," noted the Delhi High Court on March 5th, 2014. This was following the findings of the High Court appointed expert committee on the status of pesticide residues in food which the HC termed as "alarming".

Pesticide residues in food products and the concerns around them are not new- the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report on soft drinks in 2003 resulted in the then government of India setting up the first Joint Parliamentary Committee on a public health issue and only the 4th JPC ever in the history of Indian parliamentary democracy. This resulted in a wide range of recommendations on pesticide usage and residues with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) proposed as playing the key regulatory role in this space along with the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC).

There were also recommendations to various ministries to take the lead in creating awareness among farmers and also recommendations for strict punishments for the sale of banned and restricted pesticides. And now in 2014, 11 years after the CSE report and 8 years after the setting up of the FSSAI and the involvement of multiple agencies like the Central Insecticides Board, the National Institute of Nutrition and the Indian Council for Medical Research, what has really changed? Have the checks and balances envisaged really been effective in curbing the menace of pesticides?

From the Delhi HC observations and a number of similar reports coming in from across the country, the answer is an obvious no! Could the 23 children in Chapra, Bihar, have been saved if the government of India had paid heed to the WHO's warnings to ban monocrotophos, the pesticide responsible for their deaths and banned across the world in more than 46 countries and whose acute, chronic and environmental toxicity are quite well documented? Would the Cancer Express in Punjab have gained its infamous title if pesticides had not been indiscriminately used in the region since the 70s?

It is becoming more and more evident that we cannot manage this menace called pesticides. If we persist with them it will continue to wreak havoc on human health and the environment. Farmers and farm labourers will be pushed into a pesticide treadmill making them increasingly vulnerable to health hazards and debt traps. And pesticides will continue to contaminate the food that we eat. Do we have a way out?

The answer is yes- we need to get rid of these pesticides completely, and move away from steps like ban of individual pesticides, reductions in usage and all those half measures which can easily be subverted by the industry. There are lakhs of stories coming in from across the nation which speak of the immense benefits that farmers have reaped following the phase out of pesticides.
Currently discerning consumers in metros and in a few tier 2 and 3 cities are the primary beneficiaries of this organic largesse which is mainly due to the lower production levels and the premiums linked to the trade but certain movements have given economically viable, even for the consumer, ecological farming a huge impetus. One of the biggest examples of this is the Non Pesticidal Management movement spearheaded by the erstwhile Andhra state's Society for the Eradication of Poverty and the Hyderabad based NGO Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

The NPM movement basically advocates and supports collectivization of small farmers with a common intent of phase out of pesticides and empowering women along the movement's journey. One of the most astonishing aspects of the NPM model has been how they have done most of the farm conversions from pesticides in a production neutral manner- mostly through local formulations for pest control, bio pesticides, multi cropping, border cropping and other methods. 33 lakh hectares of farm land in Seemandhra and Telengana and lakhs of farmers have adopted the model and another significant achievement of NPM has been how the farmers have been able to break the vicious circle of debt created by the expenses linked to the procurement of chemical inputs. The farmers also earn a nominal premium but they benefit mostly from the actual, drastic, reduction of their pesticide and other input costs. NPM is currently being rolled in other states like Maharashtra and Bihar with the support of the state governments. There have also been shifts to organic in states like Sikkim and Meghalaya with the state governments providing constant support to their small growers.

Examples like these negate the usual arguments for pesticides based on issues like production losses, food security, quality etc and basically highlight the need for a massive change in mindsets- among those in power and also among the consumers who need to realize that they have every right to demand for safe food. Safe food as a concept is not unattainable and I'm reminded of how the government of India has time and again disregarded the Precautionary Principle, part of the World Charter for Nature adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982 and also part of the subsequent Montreal and Kyoto protocols. It states that for any action or policy suspected of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that it is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. So simply put, the government of India and all those yaysayers for pesticides should convince us of their fundamentally flawed claims for the need for pesticides rather than putting the onus on us, the people who demand a basic right – safe food!

Click here to say yes to pesticide-free tea!

Siddharth Sreenivas is a campaigner with Greenpeace India.