Tough times are upon Tamil Nadu and Karnataka vegetable farmers. Benign weather has ensured bumper yields but the mandi rates have hit the floor due as an important buyer has stayed away from the market. Thanks to its undulating terrain and orientation towards plantation crops, Kerala relies on its neighbours for much of its fruits and vegetables needs. Over 60 percent of fruits and veggies consumed in the state are imported. This persistent demand has led to the development of thriving vegetable clusters in and around Nagarcoil, Madurai, Coimbatore, Nilgiris and Mysore.
A news report in early June, citing a study by the Kerala food safety authority, alleged that the TN and Karnataka farmers had put the state on a pesticide diet. The report claimed that the usage of pesticides were five times the permissible limit. The state apparatus, still recovering from a very public trial of endosulfan, disrupted the supply chain by imposing more regulations at border checkpoints. As the orders dried up, unsold arrivals resulted in a price crash in neighbouring states. Tamil Nadu, which used to supply 900 truckloads daily, was the worst hit.
From sowing to harvesting, vegetable farming is a strict time-bound project. A tomato field is harvested twice a week for 10-12 weeks. Delayed harvest, even by two days, results in unsaleble produce. Absence of cold storage infrastructure accentuates the challenge. The supply chain too is rigid to absorb these shocks and divert the excess supplies to newer markets.
The gory images of victims of alleged endosulfan poisoning from cashew plantations of Kasaragod have left a deep scar of the psyche of the nation. Repeated reports of excess pesticide residues found in food from various parts of the country have made consumers extremely nervous. The battle is still raging between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala with each roping their respective central agricultural universities to back their claims.
Unfortunately, the media reports on this issue are high on emotions and low on data. For example, the much maligned wax coated apple has been a standard industry practice since the early 30’s. As apples loose their wax coating during washing, the packinghouses use natural wax to replace it. The coating reduces perspiration and prevents moisture loss. The coating helps apples travel further and keeps the price affordable.
The dominant narrative of carcinogen laced food platter on the dining table gets punctured when data is given a chance to prove itself. At 650 grams of active ingredients per hectare, pesticide consumption in India is one of the lowest in the world. For a country that is one of the top producers of major food crops, it is a remarkable achievement. It is a fact that pesticides have a vital role in our country’s food security.
In 2010, ICAR conducted a nationwide survey of vegetables to assess the pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables. Only 542 (1.6 percent) out of 34,207 samples were found to having residues above the prescribed limits. Disturbingly, the study found the presence of non-recommended pesticides in vegetables. Prior to its ban, India consumed over 4000 tonnes of the endosulfan annually for decades. No fruits and vegetables went untouched by the ubiquitous insecticide. If endosulfan was even half dangerous as claimed by various unsubstantiated reports, deadly diseases linked to its toxicology would have inflicted at least a generation of Indians. The fact that aerial sprays of high dosage endosulfan were responsible for the deadly poisoning in Kasaragod was drowned in the fracas. An affordable pesticide was snatched away from the farmers. Alternatives like Imidachloprid, Thiamethoxam and Rynaxypyr are expensive. And hence the reason why Monocrotophos, prohibited from use on fruits and vegetables, has now become the go to insecticide.
Intensive mono-cropping and off-season cultivation have been blamed for some farmers resorting to non-prescribed chemicals to combat pesticide resistance. However, it is tough for a small farmer to switch away from a crop that he has internalized the vagaries of the plant, its diseases and marketing. Another deterrent is the initial capital expenditure associated with cropping of each vegetable. For growing an acre of tomato, one needs at least 1,500 5-feet bamboo stakes, about 4kms of tomato twine and drip lines. One cropping season is not enough to recover this cost.
For consumers, the risk of eating vegetables with high residues of pesticides gets highly diluted as a produce from particular farm gets pooled in every step of supply chain, but the farmer consumes what he grows. And that is where the efforts should be directed. The work is cut out for extension services to nudge farmers towards judicious use of pesticides so productivity increases further without compromising their own health. It is a long-term battle and until then, please do take this advice from Kerala agricultural university: wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consuming it.
Aruna Urs farms in his village in Mysuru, Karnataka. He was co-founder and CEO of a database management company in Mysuru. Prior to that, he worked as an adviser to the government of Timor-Leste (East Timor).
He tweets as @arunaurs