The government is planning a “grow safe food campaign” that could entail new policy initiatives on pesticide use and an awareness drive among farmers in the wake of a study that shows at least 2% of commonly consumed fruits and vegetables could be poisonous.
The government-sponsored study, ‘Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level’, continuously tracked pesticide use between April 2009 and March 2013 for possible presence of organo-chlorine, organo-phosphorous, synthetic pyrethroids, carbamates and herbicides. Of the 54,195 samples of food commodities and irrigated water collected, residues were found to be above maximum permissible limits in 1,085 (2%) samples.
The remaining samples had residues conforming to scientifically permitted limits — but how safe these amounts are is also a hotly debated issue in India, considering global norms advocate a “zero per cent toxic” policy.
In March, the Delhi high court had ruled that some fruits and vegetables in the Capital were unfit for human consumption because they contained high pesticide residue. In 2013, ‘monocrotophos’, a farm chemical banned in many countries, was said to be responsible for the death of 23 children in Bihar after its traces were found in mid-day school meals.
According to the World Health Organisation, India allows the use of many pesticides banned elsewhere in the world. Historically, India has been slow in phasing out such farm chemicals mainly because impoverished farmers would have to give up farming in the absence of cheaper alternatives. A litre of monocrotophos, for example, costs about Rs. 400 while its next best alternative, imidacloprid, costs Rs. 2,000.
According to the government’s farm chemical policy, the approved pesticides are safe if used strictly according to manufacturers’ guidelines printed on the product packaging. However, abuse of pesticides, including more than the recommended number of sprays, are not uncommon, the survey shows.
Along with the study, the agriculture ministry is studying the recommendations of an expert panel, set up by the UPA regime, on pesticide-use patterns. The panel scrutinised the ‘neonicotinoid’ category of pesticides and reviewed 66 pesticides that are currently banned or restricted in one or more countries but continue to be registered for use within India. It has so far completed its report on neonicotinoids.