India's food chain continues to suffer from excessive toxicity, brought on by the rampant and unrestrained use of pesticides. Official data were released last week that showed nearly 18.7 per cent of samples tested - samples of commonly consumed foods like vegetables, fruits, milk, pulses, meat and spices - contained pesticide residues in varying degrees. In over 2.6 per cent of the samples, the toxicity level was higher than the permissible limits. The incidence of toxicity seems to have nearly doubled when compared to similar studies in the past. Nor is the problem confined to big cities, although Delhi and Mumbai are among the worst hit: samples from small urban centres too have failed to pass the safety test.
Earlier studies had shown that even drinking water, beverages and soft drinks were not totally free of hazardous chemicals. Worst of all, traces of banned or unapproved pesticides have been found in commonly consumed foodstuffs. Clearly, regulation has failed to check the circulation of prohibited chemicals and spurious insecticides - substances which can be far more hazardous than the permitted pesticides. Many of these harmful chemicals are feared to be carcinogenic besides being injurious to the central nervous systems and liver. A joint parliamentary committee (JPC) was set up in 2003 to go into the safety standards for soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) came into being after the report of this JPC. However, many of the useful recommendations of this panel, including one concerning formulation of standards for individual food items - rather than for vegetables, fruits and others collectively as a group - have yet to be fully implemented.
The problem is not that India uses too much pesticide. In fact, India's per-hectare consumption of plant protection chemicals is just a fraction of that in developed countries. Yet the problem of toxicity is far more serious here than elsewhere. The real cause is the improper and indiscriminate use of pesticides by farmers. Most pesticide manufacturers stress the necessary precautions to be observed while using these hazardous chemicals; these include allowing a prescribed time to elapse between spraying pesticide and harvesting the crop. This is necessary to let the pesticide molecules degenerate. But these essential precautions are often ignored by farmers in India. Many of them, especially vegetable growers, dip their produce in chemical solutions just before going to the wholesale markets - which they believe will improve their appearance and assure them better prices. The use of chemicals like calcium carbide to artificially ripen fruits like bananas, papayas and mangoes also contaminates them. This can be curbed only by educating India's farmers on the safe use of pesticides. Pesticide marketing also needs to be better regulated. Only registered dealers who have some knowledge of pesticides and their safe use should be allowed to do business. This is important because farmers usually rely on the advice of pesticide sellers when it comes to plant protection issues. The pesticide industry must be pushed to contribute to this effort.