Pesticide in Food: A Silent Killer (Part-1)

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Agriculture is the core of the Indian economy. Ensuring food security for more than 1.21 billion Indian populations with diminishing cultivable land resource is an arduous task. This necessitates use of high yielding variety of seeds, balanced use to fertilizers, judicious use of quality pesticides along with education to farmers and the use of modern farming techniques. It is estimated that India approximately loses 18% of the crop yield valued at Rs. 900 billion due to pest attack each year. Therefore, the use of pesticides helps to reduce the crop losses, provide economic benefits to farmers, reduce soil erosion and help in ensuring food-safety and security for the nation.

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The farm-fresh vegetables that one picks up from the market everyday are in most cases deceptive: they may be more toxic within. According to G.V. Ramanjaneyulu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, in India, vegetables, fruits, staple cereals and pulses, meat, milk, eggs and poultry, drinking water and processed foods/beverages are contaminated with poisonous residues to various degrees. Scientific studies have shown that pesticide exposure is correlated with serious health risks, including cancer, endocrine disruption causing reproductive health disorders, organ damage, and immune system impairment. There are problems with the regulatory system that is related to chemical pesticides in the country.

According to a report, Surveillance of Food Contaminants in India, 1993, from a study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), found a high proportion of samples of milk foods-bovine, human and other-had residues of HCH and DDT, above tolerance limits. The report was a result of seven years’ work covering 12 States, carried out at six prestigious government food testing labs. Because milk is regarded very highly among vegetarians (over 50% of the population) and often taken during illness and convalescence, the study covered bovine and infant milk foods which were analysed for DDT and HCH. Similarly, pesticide content was found to be higher that norms in all popular cola brands. And the toxics like phosphoric acid and ethyl glycol used to be added for which the Supreme Court had served notice on the cola companies. So also, pesticides have been traced even in bottled water.

Interestingly, pesticide residues in food were also one of the themes of Amir Khan’s television video chat-show, Satyamev Jayate, aired in 2012. The issues of toxics and poisons in our food system have once again moved to the center of national concern.

The Indian pesticide industry with 85,000 MT of production during FY 2010 is ranked second in Asia (behind China) and twelfth, globally. In value terms, the size of the Indian pesticide industry was estimated at Rs. 180 billion for 2010, including exports of Rs. 100 billion. Export formed 55.56% of total industry revenues in FY10 and has grown at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 37.59% from FY06 to FY10.

Due to consolidation in the industry, the top five global MNCs control almost 78% of the market. In India, the industry is very fragmented with about 30-40 large manufacturers and about 400 formulators. In 2006 and 2007, the world used 2.6 billion kg of pesticides with herbicides constituting the biggest part of the world pesticide use at 40% followed by insecticides and fungicides with totals of 17% and 10% respectively.

There are no universally accepted standards. The most widely accepted and adopted safety limits are those sent by the FAO/WHO, Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and the Codex Alimentarious Commission. JMPR recommendations have been developed using international peer reviewed data considering occurrence, treat-ability, detectability and effect. Most countries have imposed regulatory limits in the form of standards (which are enforceable) and guidelines (which are desirable levels) for different pesticides. The maximum contamination’s levels (MCLs), in the US take into account: taste and odor, treatment feasibility, cost of treatment, and analytical detection. In India, the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, require that pesticide residues should be ‘below detectable level’.

Most problems result from misuse, abuse and overuse of pesticides. Most risks are associated with all chemicals; whether they are industrial chemicals, pesticides, household products or even chemicals found in the environment, it raises a number of environmental concerns. Rice is the highest pesticide consuming crop in India forming 19.8% of the total pesticides consumption followed by cotton. Andhra Pradesh is the highest pesticide consuming state (22%) followed by Maharashtra and Punjab.

Environmental Effect

  • Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, including air, water and soil.
  • Sprays and vapour during application can drift away and cause severe damage like residue problems in crops, livestock, waterways and general environment.
  • Pesticides are one of the causes of groundwater pollution because of leeching. Some pesticides are persistent organic pollutants and contribute to soil contamination.
  • Use of pesticides reduces biodiversity, reduces nitrogen fixation, contributes to pollinator decline, destroys habitat and threatens endangered species.
  • Targeted pets can develop a resistance to the pesticide, necessitating a new and stronger pesticide.
  • Those who handle these chemical can develop poisoning risks depending on dose, toxicity, duration of exposure and sensitivity to it.

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According to WHO and UNEP estimates, every year 3 million agricultural workers in the developing world experience severe poisoning from pesticides, about 18,000 of whom die. Another estimate shows that as many as 25 million workers suffer mild pesticide poisoning annually.