Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 11 August 2013
Everybody lives downstream of somebody else!
That was the core message in a column I wrote a year ago (26 August 2012) about agricultural runoff causing major environmental and public health problems.
One such impact in Sri Lanka, mass scale chronic kidney failure (CKDu), has received much attention in recent months. One of several hypotheses for this medical emergency implicates chemical pesticides.
Some environmentalists have demanded action as a precautionary measure. In April 2013, the Health Ministry said it would ban the import of three pesticides (Chlorpynphos, Propanyl and Caboryl): apparently chemicals in these pesticides were found in urine samples of CKDu patients.
Banning rarely solves problems. But tightening the 90% state subsidy on chemical fertilisers, (which in 2009 cost 0.6% of total GDP) can reduce overuse and the resulting contamination of our water, soil and bodies.
In short, it’s a governance problem that requires a systemic solution. There is a strong case for better regulation of all agrochemicals.
Things are not as simple as single issue activists would like us to believe.
Responsible governments have to carefully balance competing — or even conflicting — interests of farmers’ needs, food security and public health. Fertiliser subsidy, as we said before, is a political hot potato.
Speaking of potatoes, farmers who grow this tuberous crop in Sri Lanka’s hill country are among the highest users of agrochemicals. Recent research shows just how bad it is.
Researchers from the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) have found that upcountry vegetable and potato farmers use 73 branded pesticides out of 462 commercial brands marketed in Sri Lanka. Some of these are classified by World Health Organisation (WHO) as highly toxic.
HARTI’s recent policy brief, titled ‘Minimizing the Damages of Pesticides’, makes dismal reading. Authored by M M M Aheeyar, M T Padmajani and M A C S Bandara, it’s based on a survey of 240 randomly selected vegetable and potato farmers in Badulla and Nuwara Eliya districts.
To produce high yields in a short time, these farmers apply an overdose of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Their practices and attitudes confirm what was long suspected: many don’t follow any instructions, even when they can read and understand them.
Four in 10 farmers spray pesticides as a routine, even when there is no pest in sight. And when they do spot pests, farmers douse vegetable plots with toxic chemicals way in excess of what is recommended, and more frequently than is necessary.
A majority of farmers use 50% or higher dosage than recommended. Many believe, wrongly, that pesticides on the market are “not strong enough” in prescribed doses. Some mix different pesticide brands, expecting the resulting deadly cocktails to wipe out pests faster and better. Others think that more pesticides could produce bigger yields (despite fertiliser being applied separately).
One of the most alarming misuses is spraying just before harvesting. Nearly a third of all farmers admitted to doing it 7 to 10 days before harvesting. This violates the minimum 14-day “chemical free” requirement.
These are not illiterate or ignorant farmers. The survey found that over 75% of them know pesticides cause environmental pollution and harm creatures that are farmers’ natural friends, such as earthworms.
Interestingly, researchers found that up to a quarter of surveyed farmers grow some chemicals-free vegetables their own use! (How clean and safe these are amidst the rest is not clear.)
There still are gaps in farmer knowledge. For example, pesticide labels carry a colour band to denote the level of toxicity (where red is extremely toxic; yellow, highly toxic; blue, moderately toxic; and green, slightly toxic). Only a quarter of surveyed farmers knew what these meant.
These findings by HARTI, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, highlight a failure of agricultural extension in Sri Lanka. Only 35% of farmers had been reached by the state’s agro officers. A majority relied on pesticide dealers, or fellow farmers, when deciding what to apply and how.
Nearly two thirds of farmers had attended training provided by agrochemical companies. These programmes reach them at the field level where state extension didn’t.
This is similar to what happens across tropical Asia, as I heard in an interview earlier this year with Dr Kong Luen “K.L.” Heong, Principal Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Banos, the Philippines.
“Most farmers across Asia simply ask their nearest local vendor for crop protection advice – and the vendors, in turn, promote whatever they have in stock, or whichever brand that gives them the highest profit margins,” Dr Heong said.
In his view, registering importers of agrochemicals and licensing wholesale traders is necessary – but not sufficient. Toxic agrochemicals are currently being peddled to farmers mostly by untrained salespersons and local vendors who have no certification, and operate without much (or any) supervision and accountability.
He wants to see developing countries introduce regulatory and certification systems similar to how pharmaceutical drugs are imported and distributed. “We are dealing with a trade, and we are dealing with poison! Why are we not having a certification programme (for those peddling it to end users)?” he asked. (Full text: http://tiny.cc/Pestsu)
Sri Lanka’s pesticide imports are regulated by the Registrar of Pesticides, but the distribution is done by private companies and their local dealers. It’s time to streamline the rest of this toxic chain.
In the meantime, what can we do to minimise our inadvertent intake of pesticide residues with our food and water?
Eating fully organic is one option, albeit a more costly one (it still doesn’t protect us from residues mixed in our water). One day, Sri Lanka we might pursue the goal of going fully organic as Bhutan has set out to do by 2020.
For now, I’d say we emulate Bangkok, not Bhutan.
In the late 1990s, when chemical engineer Dr Bhichit Rattakul was the elected governor of Bangkok, he used market forces to encourage Thai farmers to cut down high levels of pesticide use.
He set up a team of technicians at Si Moom Wong market — the largest fresh market in Thailand — to rapid test vegetable and fruit samples every day for pesticide residue levels.
With nearly 2,000 truckloads of fresh produce arriving each day, these technicians managed to test around 70% of the produce. Stocks found to exceed acceptable safety standards were instantly rejected, no matter how much food went waste, and how loudly farmers protested.
Dr Rattakul recalled in BBC documentary Toxic Trail (2001): “I thought that 10 million people in the city of Bangkok has to consume this kind of contaminated vegetables every day without knowing that those are the deadly poison products from the farm.”
Impartial and consistent testing was key to winning over both farmers and consumers. In three years, the rejects came down to less than 5% as farmers adopted more ecologically-friendly methods of growing food.
Resolute elected officials like Dr Rattakul are hard to find (imagine anyone trying this with Dambulla or Pettah markets!).
In the end, governments can do only so much. We have to become more discerning and demanding ourselves.
As Dr Rattakul says in the film: “The consumer always thinks that without the holes, without the scars on the leaf of the vegetable, it’s good to consume. In fact, anything on the vegetable that you can find, a hole or a scar on that, means it’s pesticide-free!”
Food for thought, that.
Watch Toxic Trail (Part 2) featuring Dr Bhichit Rattakul