Monday, 30 May 2011

India’s crops laced with pesticides

The Indian government has proved more effective at meeting food export targets than feeding their own people. Over 220 million people go hungry but food exports are booming. In 2009 the (Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority (APEDA) set a target to double India’s agricultural exports from $9 billion to $18 billion within five years. But India’s food export drive, and attempt to build a reputation for organic produce, could be compromised by repeated incidences of contamination with pesticide residues, which have exceeded MRL’s (Maximum Residue Level), or are banned, in importing countries.

Basmati rice fetches about twice the price of non-Basmati, and India’s exports are worth around $300 million per year. Yet future exports could face uncertainty, after thousands of tonnes of Indian Basmati rice were rejected by European countries in 2010. High pesticide residue levels were detected by the Eurofins laboratory in Hamburg. Levels of Cabenenzum and Isoprothiolane were three times more than the European Commission MRL of 0.01 mg per kg. Stores in Germany alone withdrew 30,000 tonnes of the rice, and there were concerns that exports to the Gulf, which accounts for 70 per cent of India’s Basmati rice exports, might be affected.

In December 2010 the EU rejected three shipments of okra grown in India, because levels of three pesticides, Moncrotophos, Acephate and Traizaphos exceeded the MRL. Triazaphos is known to be toxic to birds and the level detected, 0.11mg per kg, is over ten times the EU MRL of 0.01mg per kg.

The Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s has set a target to increase exports of grapes from 37,000 tonnes a year to 44,000 tonnes. About 70 per cent of India’s grape exports are to the EU. But, in 2010, the exports faced a setback when several consignments of grapes were rejected because of residues of Chlormequat, which is not permitted in the EU. Some of the grapes rotted in Rotterdam Port, but most ended up being eaten by citizens of countries with lower pesticide residue standards. Some of the consignments of grapes were diverted to other countries, and the UK and Sweden allowed import of the grapes by introducing their own MRL, even though the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) stated that children eating a large amount of the grapes in a short period might suffer ‘acute symptoms’, which could include ‘irritation mouth or throat, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain and headache’.

Most of India’s organic food is grown for export. In 2009, India exported 135 types of organic products, and APEDA has set an organic food export target of $1 billion within five years. Asit Tripathy, chair of APEDA, stated a goal of making India the world’s number one organic hub over the next 10 years. Currently, India ranks 33rd in the world in terms of total land under organic cultivation and 88th regarding the proportion of agricultural land under organic crops compared to the total farmed land.

Cotton is India’s leading organic export, and carries a premium of 15 – 20 per cent more than conventionally grown cotton, and in 2008-2990 India accounted for as much as 65 per cent of the 175,113 tonnes of organic cotton produced worldwide. In February 2010 it was reported that garments labelled organic in popular clothing stores including H&M, C&A and Tchibo contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. Lothar Kruse, director of an independent testing laboratory Impetus, based in Bremerhaven, said that about 30 per cent of the samples were contaminated with GM cotton. It appeared that the Indian subsidiaries of the two European certifying bodies had failed to check the seeds being used by organic farmers, many of whom had used seeds of Bt (GM) cotton. With Bt cotton accounting for between 65-75 per cent production in India, contamination is a widespread concern. G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said ‘even at 100 metres there is possibility of contamination’. If just one plant in a one-acre plot, which can have 4,000 plants, becomes contaminated, there is a serious risk that the seed for the next season will be contaminated.

Pesticide residue levels on India’s food crops, including banned pesticides, are far higher on food for the domestic market. A report by Government of India’s Department of Agriculture and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, shows the results of analysis of samples from 13 states across India in 2008 and 2009. Many tested above the MRL set by the 1954 Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, showing widespread lack of monitoring of pesticide application. Residues of four pesticides which are banned in India were detected. Aldrin, Chlordane, Chlorfenvinfos and Heptachlor are banned for use, manufacture, import and export:

• Aldrin - detected in brinjal, cauliflower, tomato, okra, banana, apple, wheat and milk
• Chlordane - detected in apple, banana and cabbage
• Chlorfenvinfos – detected in bitter gourd, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, rice and wheat
• Heptachlor - detected in brinjal, okra, tomato, rice, milk and butter.

These four pesticides are among the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) identified by the Stockholm convention as the ‘dirty dozen’, pollutants which remain intact for long periods and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and people.

Now there is the issue of GM-related insecticide contamination. GM crops were promoted as ‘resistant’ to pesticides and insecticides, but are actually dependent on these inputs. On Devinder Sharma’s blog there is an article about a recent Canadian study which detected the widespread presence of Bt-related insecticide in the blood of 93 per cent pregnant women and 80 per cent of foetuses. There are indications that Bt-related insecticide disrupts foetal development. A few weeks ago the Stockholm Convention met in Geneva, and agreed to add endosulfan to the list of POPs to be removed from the global market by 2012. But the Stockholm Convention is unable to keep pace with a juggernaut of newer, more powerful, chemicals being pushed onto the marketplace.

An article by agriculture and trade policy analyst Bhaskar Goswami, Scars of the Green Revolution looks at the impacts of high dependence on pesticides in the Punjab. Pesticide consumption in the Punjab State stood at 923 grams per hectare in 2006, putting it in the ‘very-high-use’ bracket. Pesticide residues have been recorded in human beings, water, milk, vegetables and several other foods at far higher than permissible limits. Incidence of cancer and other ailments have reached alarming levels and large numbers of farmers and their families from the Malwa region regularly travel to Rajasthan for treatment for cancer. There are instances of children as young as 10 years old suffering from arthritis, and looking prematurely aged with greying hair. The pest population adapts to the pesticides and becomes resistant, putting farmers on a treadmill of higher pesticide application, with increased application of the agricultural inputs that have caused the problems.

Goswami’s article explains how agriculture in the Punjab faces other serious problems besides over use of pesticides. Farmer debt has increased with more expenditure on farm machinery. Debt as a proportion of farmer income increased from 68 per cent in 1997 to 84 per cent in 2008. Intensive monoculture of wheat and rice has displaced a wider range of crops including corn, groundnut, barley and rapeseed. Livestock diversity had dwindled, and is now dominated by just three breeds of cows, buffaloes and sheep and two breeds of goats and poultry. Water stress is increasing, with overexploitation of groundwater. In more than half of districts, water levels have reduced by 30 centimetres. The depleted water is contaminated with residues, and air is polluted by burning straw. Yet, the government Working Group on Agriculture Production recommends this ‘Punjab Model’ of framing is recommended for replication by all states across India.

The latest issue of the public health charity Friends of the Human Race e-zine is focussed on alternatives to chemical intensive agriculture in India. Town of Kulithalai in Tamil Nadu, waste segregation, transformed, biodegradable waste fed to cows and composted. An article by Jaison J Jerome looks at organic alternatives to using dangerous pesticides, focussing on long term soil fertility with cow dung, green manure and crop rotation. Pest infestations are far less frequent, and when they do occur alternatives to pesticides, such as sticky tape, light traps, herbal extracts and types of fungi have proved effective. Micro-organisms can be effective in removing a wide range of pathogens, and are non-toxic even if accidentally ingested, and have been used effectively in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, composting and solid waste management. There is an article from a farmer who worked on a tea plantation in Kerala for nearly ten years, repeatedly exposed to pesticides, witnessed banned pesticides being used, and was poisoned with Monocrotophos. He was diagnosed with a type of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, in 2001, and fortunately has been well since receiving treatment. My article has more information about the alarming levels of banned pesticides on India’s food crops.

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