Since the beginning of the year, the pesticide industry has been chafing at a series of draft notifications from the agriculture ministry proposing bans on the use of various agro-chemicals. On February 3, it sought to ban tricyclazole, a yellow-label or high toxic fungicide widely used in rice cultivation. This followed the European Union reducing the maximum residue level (MRL) a hundred fold from one part per million (ppm) or one milligram per kg to 0.01 ppm (one milligram per 100 kg), which is the default mode below detectable levels, from January 1, 2018.
Many basmati rice export consignments to the EU were rejected because the residues were above the allowed level. The EU is an important basmati rice market, but not among the top 10. In 2017-18, it imported 3.35 lakh kg of rice from India worth about $296 million as compared to 2.69 million tonnes which five countries of West Asia – Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq and Kuwait – imported for $2.79 billion. India’s total exports of basmati that year were 4 million tonnes valued at $4.16 billion. The United States also imports Indian basmati. Its MRL for tricyclazole is 3 ppm and that of Japan 8 ppm. Yet, EU sets the standards for us.
Farmers need just 120 grams of the chemical for one acre and it costs about ₹200. If banned, the alternatives from European and American companies would cost between ₹900 and ₹1,300 an acre. At an online seminar earlier this week, Ashok K Singh, Director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) said there is an international system for food safety standards and no country should arbitrarily set residue levels for the sake of trade advantage.
In May, the ministry issued another notification proposing to ban 27 chemicals. It said safety data for them was either not generated in India or the data was incomplete. In its report of December 2015, the Anupam Varma Committee had said the required studies should be done within two years. The committee was set up in July 2013 to examine whether the use of neo-nicotinoid insecticides should be continued. A month later, in August 2013, its ambit was expanded to include 66 chemicals which were banned, restricted or withdrawn in some countries.
Varma, who was the National Professor of Virology at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and is now Director of the Advanced Virology Research Centre, said his committee had recommended a ban on 12 chemicals and phasing out of six. On 27 chemicals, it did not have enough information to take a decision and had said that data should be generated by the end of 2017 and a decision on their use taken on that basis.
“In view of the latest revelations there must be a re-review” of the proposed ban, Varma said, “keeping in mind the interests of the environment, the farmers and industry in that order.”
A letter written by RK Chaturvedi, Secretary, Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, to the agriculture ministry on June 2 shows little inter-ministerial coordination. Based on representations received from industry organisations, he said there should be “wider stakeholder consultations” before further action is taken.
Related news: Why use of weedkiller glyphosate should be restricted
The letter said the 27 chemicals were generic and available inexpensively. Alternatives would take three years to be registered and approved for use. It specifically noted that Mancozeb, was a ‘Green Triangle’ fungicide which indicates least toxicity. It is the preferred fungicide in many countries. It is banned only in Saudi Arabia. The letter noted that it has “an excellent record of crop safety over a wide range of crops and environmental conditions.”
Malathion and Chlorpyriphos are recommended for control of polyphagous locusts, which are currently ravaging parts of Rajasthan. Malathion is also used for mosquito control. It is a ‘Blue Triangle’ chemical, which indicates moderate toxicity. It is banned in Syria and Palestine. That is not a justification for banning it in India, the letter noted.
The letter also questioned the draft order’s indictment of Chlorpyriphos, an active ingredient widely used due to its affordability and efficacy against insect pests. Many research studies have shown that it demonstrates “no potential to interact with the endocrine system, including oestrogen, androgen, or thyroid pathways.”
Carbendazim, another chemical proposed to be banned, is used for the treatment of rice seeds for protection from a variety of fungal diseases. It just takes 10 grams to treat 10 kg of rice seed, sufficient to sow an acre. “If banned, it will have devastating consequences,” IARI’s Singh said. The flip side is it is being sold in half-kg packs. Since farmers do not need so much, most of them choose not to treat seed with it. Repacking the chemical in small pouches is a criminal offence. The draft notification says it is banned in 29 countries. Manufacturers were told to generate bio-efficacy and residue data but they told the technical committee to consider 2009-12 data, which it declined. The chemical is said to be harmful to pregnant women and has toxic impurities.
On July 8, the agriculture ministry issued a third draft notification to restrict the spraying of a popular weedkiller, glyphosate, only by licensed pest control operators, at the behest of the Kerala government. How that decision was taken and the implications of the restrictions are elaborated in a companion piece on this website.
The pesticide industry says Indian farmers are poor and cannot afford pesticides indiscriminately. It points to the agriculture ministry’s report, “Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at the National Level.” The report says only 2.1 per cent of 1,81,656 samples analysed between 2008-09 and 2017-18 were found to have levels above the maximum set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. But the data has not been widely publicised. Even if it is, it’s doubtful whether it will be believed.
There are reports of Punjab being India’s cancer capital. But the website, cancernindia.org.in, set up by an institute under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) says in 2016, Kerala had the highest incidence of cancer (135.3 per lakh persons) followed by Mizoram (121.7). The incidence in Punjab (85.5), which practices intensive agriculture and is said to be rash in the use of pesticides, was less than in neighbouring Delhi (102.9), Haryana (103.3), Himachal Pradesh (91.6) and Uttarakhand (91).
At an online press conference on June 9, pesticide industry representatives accused government officials of acting in cahoots with “import lobbies and foreign-funded environmental activists.” Appeals for a revocation of the proposed ban were made in the name of nationalist sentiment, Make in India, atmanirbharata (self-reliance), food security, farmers’ welfare and doubling farmers’ income.
Some of the activists named in the CCFI advertorial have taken extreme positions on pesticides and genetically-modified (GM) crops that are not backed by scientific evidence. In 2003, Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) tried to scare people away from colas sold by two multinational majors, saying they contained traces of pesticides above the permissible limits. The traces were in parts per billion. Just because they were detected did not mean they were harmful at those levels. The courts declined to stay the sale of the colas.
In 2018, CSE said GM processed food and cooking oil were being imported without regulatory approval. This was not found to be true. Lalitha Gowda, former scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru said her team had tested imported soybean oil for GM protein but found it was below detectable levels. CSE’s tests were flawed said Pradeep Burma, Head of the Department of Genetics at Delhi University.
Kavita Kurganti has also been actively campaigning against pesticides and GM crops. Partly as a result of her campaign, the government has not approved for cultivation GM mustard developed by a team of Delhi University scientists led by its former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental, even though the highest regulatory body, GEAC, had made a positive recommendation.
Organisations like CCFI perhaps would not need to issue advertisements to make their point of view known if the news media diligently investigated the claims made both for and against pesticides. Journalists mistake “bothsideism” for balance without probing whether the advocates of chemical-free sustainable agriculture actually practice it, and whether their models are scalable and viable. It is impossible to feed India’s growing population without chemicals. The Green Revolution was not chemical-free. But activists, NGOs and motivated researchers have created a mood against chemical pesticides. Even the government is promoting organic and traditional agriculture, which is not climate smart, as it would need more land.
We must use pesticides judiciously. There should be a massive awareness campaign for farmers in use of pesticides, as per protocol. We need to promote integrated pest management practices, where beneficial insects and microbes are harnessed. Spurious pesticides are a scourge but enforcement action is lacking. There should also be a system to continuously monitor the use of pesticides, phase out those that are hazardous and replace them with benign ones.
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)