Touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to the ‘hazardous’ synthetic crop protectors, the fledgling biological pesticides sector appears to have fallen victim to its own hype. Spurious concoctions, suboptimal products and brews laced with chemical pesticides have taken its own toll.
Biopesticides, in which the main ingredient is derived from a natural source, are actively championed by the government agencies under integrated pest management (IPM) programmes. Increase in resistance to chemical pesticides, contamination and unfavourable consumer view on synthetics had assured the success of these natural pesticides. There are several advantages in using biopesticides. Unlike chemical pesticides, they target only the specific pest while being not harmful to other organisms. These microbes, fungi and other plant-derived products are relatively safer for human consumption. Small quantity is often effective and biopesticides leave no footprint as they decompose quickly.
Global biopesticide market has been growing at double digits thanks to a strong demand for organic food in developed markets. The U.S. consumes about 40% of the global production. In India, the uptake has been rather slow. Biopesticides have low single digit market share. Along with neem derived products, agnostic fungi Trichoderma strains and Pseudomonas fluorescens bacteria dominate the market.
For risk averse farmers, who have internalized pest management with synthetics, switching over to biopesticides would be a major challenge as they have to re-learn the entire process while risking their incomes. Earning their trust and proving efficacy has been a major challenge for biopesticides. The advantage of being highly target specific is also turning out to be a disadvantage for these naturally derived products. Some crops may require additional sprays to kill secondary pests. Moreover, the knockdown of the target is slow and biopesticides might be ineffective in severe pest outbreak scenarios. Supply chain too is problematic as minor changes in temperature, humidity, exposure to UV spectrum severely affects the performance.
The headwind faced by the industry mainly comes from within. To quickly boost production of these products, government handed out generous capital outlay subsidy terms for entrepreneurs and this has led to a large number of micro units producing products without quality checks. Loopholes in the industry regulations have allowed unscrupulous entrepreneurs to exploit farmers.
A recent survey carried out by the National Pesticide Manufacturers Association revealed that multiple bio-products that are sold in the market that have no company registration number or the active ingredients mentioned on the label and to top it all, no address of the company. A FICCI report on the issue notes that the problem is acute in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat where these products are not within the purview of Insecticides Act, 1968 or any other Act. According to FICCI, the turnover of spurious products in Andhra Pradesh alone was about at Rs.500 crores in 2011.
The harm caused by these products goes beyond just monetary losses. There is a serious reputational risk for high quality farm produce exported from India. FICCI notes that adulterated biopesticides have been the reason for rejection of rice, chilies, and grapes consignments in recent years. The budding domestic organics industry will also be under threat if these spurious products go unchecked.
The passage of the pending Pesticide Management Bill will be a first step in tightening the regulations around this sector. However, a robust quality assurance programme, on the lines of existing framework in the U.S. and Europe, needs to be put in place for integrated pest management programme to succeed. This will help in restoring confidence of farmers and will put them on a level playing field to compete for the global organic market dollars.
Until then, the artisanal approach to subsidise all and sundry to enter into production of these high technology products should be abandoned. Funds would be better utilised in research laboratories and educational programmes.
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