One doesn't have to look far to find pesticide contamination in food and water in India. Remember the classic Pepsi case where Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi based NGO, found high levels of toxic pesticides in soft drinks? It isn't just water alone but the entire food chain that is increasingly becoming the primary source of pesticide contamination putting the health and safety of people at risk.
Consumer Voice report
In 2010, Consumer Voice, a Delhi based consumer rights NGO, had published a report based on vegetable samples collected from wholesale and retail shops in Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata. The sample vegetables and fruits were tested at Arbro Analytical Division, which was accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories.
Bhindi (ladies finger) contained captan, a toxic pesticide to the extent of 15,000 parts per billion (ppb) while the European Union’s accepted standard is just about 20 ppb. Fruits weren't spared either. 12 fruits including bananas, apples and grapes among others also had high amounts of pesticides such as endosulphan, captan, thiacloprid, parathion and DDT residues. The report alleged that the levels of pesticides found in their samples was upto 750 times the European standards.
Apart from pesticides, toxic colours and hormones like oxytocin are also being used indiscriminately to ripen vegetables and fruits. Pesticide dealers were advising wrong doses to the farmers. In addition, farmers also do not observe the prescribed waiting periods and apply pesticides incorrectly.
How can pesticides harm you?
“These pesticides can leave adverse effects on the nervous system. Harmful pesticides can also cause several hazardous diseases like cancer, liver, kidney and lung damage. Pesticides can also cause loss of weight and apetite, irritability, insomnia, behavioral disorders and dermatological problem”, the Consumer Voice report says.
Consumer Voice had reported this to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and had asked for strict monitoring from government agencies to check the manufacture, import and use of banned pesticides. It also insisted that the pesticide residue limits be reviewed given that no reviews had been done in the last 30 years.
Delhi High Court takes action
The Delhi Government conducted tests to check residue in fruits and vegetables at four laboratories approved by the NABL and the Department for Science and Technology. They showed that pesticides were present in just 8 of the 31 samples collected but these were within the maximum residue limit prescribed by the Central Government under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act.
There was a media outcry following the Delhi Government’s watered down report submitted in November 2013 (Consumer Voice blog). The Court has since directed the Delhi Government to do surprise checks of wholesale and retail markets and conduct routine tests to ensure that the residue of pesticides in vegetables and fruits sold are under permissible limits (Daily Mail UK).
The Government has further been asked to look for definite ways to curb the use of harmful pesticides by February 5, 2014. Errant traders will be prosecuted if contamination is found, the Bench said. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act stipulates that traders selling contaminated produce can be jailed up to six years and fined up to Rs. 5,000.
Is our food contaminated with chemicals?
ToxicsLink, a Delhi based NGO, recently organized a panel discussion represented by Consumer Voice and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to debate the issue threadbare. Not much has changed since 2010, according to Prof. Shree Ram Khanna of Consumer Voice. While rules mandate that samples from each wholesale vegetable and fruit market be checked on a daily basis to test chemical residues, Consumer Voice argues that Food Inspectors are corrupt and barely do that.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and the government have taken no action against the parties involved in pesticide cases either. Meenakshi Singh of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, asserted at the lecture that the Authority strives to “ensure establishment of standards and practices that fully assure consumers interest and adhere to the highest degree of integrity possible”.
The way ahead
Taking cues from international standards, the pesticide residue limit must be reduced and continuously monitored at the seller-level. Carrying out the threat of fines to errant traders is only one part of it. The more pressing need is to encourage and incentivize farmers to alter their farming practices. Using techniques such as crop rotation and using bio-pesticides among other practices, must be brought back.