The national conclave on food held on March 15, 2019 at New Delhi saw experts urge policy changes to promote sustainable food production especially organic farming as well as regulations to reduce misuse of antibiotics and pesticides. The discussions organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based research and advocacy non-profit underlined the need to regulate bad food and bring in a policy-level change in terms of advertisements on junk foods.
In her opening remarks, Sunita Narain, director general of the CSE stressed that “food is linked to nutrition, nature and livelihoods. We need strong regulations which can stop the ingress of chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics into our food and protect us against ‘bad foods’ high in fat, sugar or salt.”
The experts stressed the linkages between the way food is produced and promoted in the country and the growing burden of diseases. “The draft pesticides management bill, 2017 was of critical importance for the health of people since India’s agriculture is largely dependent on chemicals including pesticides whose overuse and misuse has had a huge impact on the health of humans, animals and the environment,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the CSE.
Stong pesticide bill needed
Pesticides have contributed significantly to the current economic, ecological and existential crisis in agriculture. The panel of experts deliberated on the need to have a strong pesticide management bill and phase out class I pesticides that are extremely hazardous and toxic. “In India, the central agency responsible for registering pesticides continues to do so without setting the maximum residue limit, the legal limit of pesticide residues in food based on good agricultural practices,” says Sonam Taneja, programme manager, food safety and toxins, CSE.
The draft pesticides management bill, 2017 is weak and needs to be overhauled to deal with the key regulatory gaps and enforcement issues. Stressing that a strong bill would ensure effective pesticide management across registration, sale and use, Ajai Vir Jakhar, chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj says, “Large pesticide companies (brand owners and marketing agents) generally outsource production to smaller manufacturers. But they can’t be prosecuted because the present law stipulates prosecution of the manufacturer and not brand owners”.
“Agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases is a state subject and the power to legislate on regulation should be with the state,” says Balwinder Singh Sidhu, commissioner (agriculture) of Punjab. States should be allowed the sale of only those pesticides that are required for the existing crop mix as per label claim and have been recommended by the state agricultural university after testing for its efficacy in the given environment.
Farmers continue to commit suicide in large numbers using misbranded (substandard, spurious, expired) pesticides. Avanthi Karunarathne of the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, University of Edinburgh, based on the experience of the ban of class I pesticides in Sri Lanka, says, “India must immediately phase out class I pesticides which are extremely hazardous”.
The focus should be on minimising pesticide use in view of public health and attaining sustainability, not productivity. Pesticides must be sold under the prescription of a professional expert and the concept of plant health doctors should be introduced. “The ministry of health and family welfare should have the legislative powers to regulate the use of pesticides. At present, the regulation of pesticides is being done by the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare which has the mandate of increasing productivity. There is a clear conflict of interest as the promoter cannot be the regulator,” says Taneja.
Need for regulations on antibiotics
Experts also deliberated on antibiotic misuse and antimicrobial resistance in food sources and the need to put a complete stop to the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals. The use of antibiotics in the poultry and dairy industry is a major reason for human diseases and environmental damage.
“In recent years, people in Kerala, who were once responding to antibiotics, are not doing so any more. This issue is not limited to Kerala but is a global phenomenon. When we tested some food products for trans-fat, especially in packaged food, the levels did not match with the label on the packet. Also, the trans-fat levels in Vanaspati or cooking oil was above five percent—way more than Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) standards,” says Rajeev Sadanandan, additional chief secretary, department of health and family welfare, Kerala, who is spearheading the efforts to contain antimicrobial resistance in the state. Kerala’s antimicrobial resistance strategic action plan could be a model for other states in the country.
Regulating bad foods
Globally, there has been a rise in consumption of animal-source food, calorific sweetness, ready-to-eat food but a decrease in the consumption of vegetables, pulses and fruits. In India, food produced intensively through chemical-based agriculture combined with ‘bad food’ i.e. ultra-processed foods high in fats, sugar or salt is being marketed rampantly.
There are issues with labelling and claims of bad foods, their advertisements in broadcasting and new-age digital media, as well as their availability in schools. The draft regulations put out by the FSSAI on labelling and availability in schools are yet to be notified. The marketing tactics of the food industry need to be regulated by putting in place a comprehensive framework.