Unsafe agriculture practices rarely attract attention. But whatever little we know about the effects of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides on agriculture, it is alarming enough. Food and Agriculture Organisation data shows that consumption of chemical fertilisers in the country has risen 170 times since 1950 and pesticide consumption has increased from 1 million tonne in the 1950s to over 75 million tonnes in recent years.
Despite such largescale usage of chemical inputs, India still has no robust system to monitor the usage of pesticides, their movements and effects on environment and human beings. Agriculture is the biggest utiliser of land and if the chemical inputs are not used carefully, they can pollute the soil, air and water. The consequences of such large-scale contamination could be irreversible and fatal.
Pesticides are known to cause a variety of health problems, some even life-threatening. Yet their usage in the agricultural sector continues unchecked. Paradoxically, the most intensive and expensive checks imposed today are on organic agriculture.
Organic products go through intensive checks in laboratories and rigorous on-field checks by third-party certifiers or a stringent Participatory Guarantee Scheme. This increases the price of safe natural food and deters farmers from claiming their produce to be organic. On the contrary, farmers using chemicals in agriculture don’t need to state clearly the chemical composition of fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs they use during cultivation and storage.
Consumers will be able to make informed choices only when they know where their food comes from, the chemical residues it is likely to contain and its effects on health. Today’s environment and health-conscious farmers need a level-playing field and the consumer the knowledge to make informed choices about what they are consuming.
The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) must also involve itself in assessing environmental aspects of all agriculture practices and not only genetically modified crops. All agricultural practices using chemicals or synthetic products must go through environment impact assessment before they are cleared for use by the farmer. The MoEF needs to be more active and responsible regarding the effect of agricultural practices on environment.
Bhutan has recognised the close relationship between agriculture, forest and environment and has constituted a ministry of renewable natural resources. In our country too, the ministries of agriculture and environment must not remain segregated and function in two separate compartments.
Sonali Bisht is a development consultant and founder-member of Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education, Uttarakhand. The views expressed by the author are personal.