We are what we eat
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We are what we eat

We can test the freshness of a fruit by holding it, smelling it, giving it a soft squeeze, checking for bumps and spots and bruises, but how do we check the level of pesticides contained in it? Aamir Khan writes.

columns Updated: Jun 25, 2012 01:08 IST
Aamir Khan

I am not someone who usually goes shopping for vegetables or even other food stuff. My present professional requirements don’t allow me this luxury and nor do my professional hazards. But I remember when I was a kid I have often accompanied my mom or my aunt when they would go out shopping for vegetables, fruits and other food stuff.

I remember being thoroughly bored during these trips. They would spend hours selecting vegetables, examining each fruit or vegetable with great interest, pointing out flaws and insisting on the best quality and the most fresh food, constantly comparing the quality offered by different sellers. All this, while my friends were waiting for me to join them in the game of cricket!

Today when I pass by Khar market, or the road that leads to Khar Telephone Exchange on Linking Rd, which is lined by vegetable and fruit sellers, I look at all the women doing exactly what my mother and aunt used to do and I am taken down memory lane to those afternoon or evenings when I was made to carry heavy bags and follow them around. How much time our Homemakers spend in selecting fresh food for us…and little do we realize that no matter how fresh the vegetable or fruit maybe, it may still contain a high degree of poison in it.

We can test the freshness of a fruit by holding it, smelling it, giving it a soft squeeze, checking for bumps and spots and bruises, but how do we check the level of pesticides contained in it?

Why do we eat food? Obviously, because our body needs the nutrition in order to survive. Nutritious food contributes to our physical and mental growth, our well-being, our ability to fight diseases etc. But if we consume large amounts of pesticide along with our food, then along with nutrition we are also consuming poison, and that defeats the very purpose of eating the food in the first place.

In the 60’s India experienced what was called The Green Revolution in agriculture. Policy makers at that time felt that in order to feed the growing population in India, we need to start chemical farming. Chemical Farming would increase the productivity and per acre yield. And so interventions to the traditional natural organic farming were brought in. Interventions like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Pests or insects damage our agricultural produce by feeding on it themselves. So to destroy or kill these pests we use what are called pesticides.

Pesticides are basically poison which kill the insects. Apparently, of all the pesticide sprayed on the crop, only 1% of it actually falls on the insect. 99% of it falls on the crop itself, gets absorbed in the soil, and/or water, gets carried a little distance by the wind etc. In this manner it gets into our food and thereby into us.

Nature has its own way of keeping a balance and therefore each of these pests which destroy our crops, also have predators. So broadly speaking there are two kinds of pests… vegetarian pests or those that feed on our crops, and non-vegetarian pests or those that feed on pests that feed on our crops. Pesticides don’t distinguish between veg and non-veg pests. It’s a poison, which kills both alike. So having killed our friend insects we are then left with those pests who have survived the onslaught of the pesticide. This survival makes them develop resistance to these pesticides, and then to kill the same insects you have to spray more pesticides. It’s a vicious circle. A circle from which we have consistently been removing our friendly insects. A circle which perhaps also results in us consuming more pesticides.

If pesticides in our food affects us, how does it affect our farmers? Well the people spraying pesticides are in the immediate vicinity of the pesticide and therefore are much more exposed to it than us the consumers. This is cited as one of the major health hazards for persons engaged in farming. Also, one of the stated reasons for farmer indebtedness is the huge cost of pesticides.

An experiment with non-pesticide farming done in Andhra Pradesh which began with a few villages on two hundred and twenty five acres has been so successful that it has now spread across 35 lakh acres! And this has been possible because of the effort of a Women’s Collective across villages with the support of the Andhra Pradesh government. Sikkim is the first state in India to go fully organic with more states seriously looking to make the shift.

The arguments for and against pesticides are many and have been dealt with in great detail on our show. For me the choice is simple, I personally feel we have no option but to move gradually towards organic farming. And, until such time that we are fully organic, we need a government regulatory authority which does monthly checks on the food coming into ALL the various wholesale markets all across the country in all the different cities, and monitors the amount of pesticide in our food.

In the meantime live with this report arrived at by CSE, Centre for Science and Environment: assuming that the pesticide content in each and every food product we consume does not exceed the MRL (Maximum Residue Limit) of pesticide in our food, and are at the permissible level, even then, as per an average diet of daily intake of various foods, we will be exceeding the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of pesticides by approximately 400% !

First Published: Jun 24, 2012 23:45 IST