The Telegraph
Monday , December 27 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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Poisoned plate

Neeta Sahdev is careful about choosing the fruits and vegetables that make their way to her dining table. Always a proponent of eating fruits unpeeled, Sahdev has now switched to peeling her apples. In fact, these days she prefers to buy organic food, which is pesticide-free, and advises her friends and family to do the same. “Do we have a choice,” asks Sahdev, pointing to the reports of indiscriminate use of pesticides in food items.

Last month the Delhi High Court asked the Delhi government and the central government to respond to a public interest litigation alleging that there were alarming levels of toxicity in India’s fruits and vegetables. The case will come up for its next hearing in January.

A study conducted by the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, Consumer Voice, has revealed that the amount of pesticides in eatables in India is as much as 750 times that of the European standards. Consumer Voice collected the data from various wholesale and retail shops in Delhi, Bangalore and Calcutta.

“It’s one thing to use pesticides to ward off pests and quite another to let them enter the food table,” says Ashok Kanchan, advisor-technical, Consumer Voice.

Pesticides are potent chemicals that are sprayed by farmers on food crops to combat pests and ensure higher yields. But their unchecked use has led to a situation where many food crops contain very high levels of these harmful chemicals.

Used indiscriminately, most pesticides are carcinogenic in nature. They are also known to have such harmful effects as liver damage, neurological problems and birth defects. They could even disrupt your hormone function.

At present India has banned 27 pesticides for manufacture, import and use. However, in the study done by Consumer Voice, of the five banned pesticides that foodstuffs were tested for, four were found to be present in various fruits and vegetables. “It’s not just the over-dosage of pesticides. The use of banned pesticides is also a cause for concern,” says Kanchan.

Take Endosulfan, a potent pesticide which is banned in most countries. A few years ago, Kerala banned its use after it killed 400 people in Kasaragod where cashew plantations were routinely sprayed with it. Despite that, farmers all across the country continue to use Endosulfan, reveals Kanchan.

“If Endosulfan is bad for Kerala, isn’t it equally bad for other states,” argues Chandra Bhushan, associate editor, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi. “We have been pressing for its country-wide ban for a long time now.”

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that India allows a relatively high maximum residue limit (MRL) for pesticides in food products. “The Indian MRL standards are much higher compared to European standards,” says Kanchan. For instance, the Indian MRL for the pesticide Malathion that’s used in apples is eight times higher than that permitted by international standards. And it is as much as 150 times higher in cauliflower.

In fact, there have been instances where consignments of vegetables from India have been returned by importing countries because of their high levels of toxicity. According to media reports, the European Union rejected three consignments of lady’s fingers from India this year as they contained pesticide residues higher than the prescribed limits.

“The rejected consignments will, of course, be sold in India now,” says Kanchan.

So what can the consumer do to protect his right to eat food devoid of any toxic substance?

According to consumer activist Bejon Mishra, founder, Healthy You Foundation, consumers need to demand quality products. “India has a robust consumer complaint redressal system under the provisions of various laws. But unfortunately, it’s not effectively and efficiently enforced by the regulators,” he says.

The primary regulator of food safety in the country is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which lays down science-based standards for food.

Consumers can not only complain to it, but also seek compensation under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, or under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. Section 50 of the act states that any person who sells food which is not in compliance with the provisions of this law is liable to pay a penalty of up to Rs 5 lakh.

“Everyone, from the local vendor to the manufacturer of packaged food or even the retailer who sells these pesticide-laced products, should be made accountable to the consumers,” says Mishra.

But usually, it is an uphill task for consumers to get justice in case he or she has been sold foodstuffs that contain pesticides beyond the permissible limits.

“It would be difficult to prove that the pesticide-laden vegetable or fruit is responsible for your ill health,” says Mishra. Besides, adds Bhushan, “The private laboratories are too expensive for a consumer to walk in and get his food tested. Only when consumer groups come together can we think of going to a lab.”

However, not everyone is crying foul about the overuse of pesticides. According to .M. Bambavale, director, National Centre for Integrated Pest Management (NCIPM), a national research centre of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, India uses far less pesticides than many other countries. “The real problem is that many farmers do not know the right time to spray pesticides, nor the right amount that needs to be sprayed,” says Bambavale.

However, most consumer experts are unanimous in their view that the government needs to step up efforts to contain the overuse of pesticides. “The authorities need to improve MRL standards and put some specific pesticides on the list of banned pesticides,” says Ashim Sanyal, CEO, Consumer Voice.

Perhaps the ongoing case in the Delhi High Court will shake the government out of its stupor.

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