Pesticides in our food
There is never any end to learning. And so, surprises. We have learnt, over 20 years, that environmental governance in India is lackadaisical. Still, the extent of irresponsibility never fails to …
There is never any end to learning. And so, surprises. We have learnt, over 20 years, that environmental governance in India is lackadaisical. Still, the extent of irresponsibility never fails to surprise.
Some months ago we did a study on pesticides in bottled water. We were really looking at pesticides in drinking water but research on municipal water supply was too difficult, so bottled water it was. We found pesticides. Where were they coming from? We found that the plants were using groundwater; the profile of pesticides in the bottles matched that in the groundwater. We understood more about the water use of these companies. Yet a question remained. Why did we find pesticides, and government not? So we looked at regulations and found that the science was about choosing the appropriate methodology of analysis. Government regulations were all about 'insensitive' detection methods, designed not to find what you looked for. We also learnt about the economics and technology of water treatment and how the management of the 'source' was critical. The more water was contaminated, the higher were the costs of treatment, the costs of ill heath.
But we were concerned about pesticide contamination. We wanted to understand more. So we did another study, this time on soft drinks. These companies also used groundwater. Our study helped to place on record that water was increasingly poisoned and even products like soft drinks, peddled through high value brand ambassadors, were unsafe.
New questions emerged. The cola giants challenged our study. They sent their street fighters turned college debaters who argued their drinks were "safe". Why? Because India used very low levels of pesticides on a per capita basis and contamination wasn't a problem. They even argued soft drinks were safe because there was even more pesticides in apples and milk. They talked about the acceptable daily intake (ADI) and said their drinks used only a small proportion of the ADI of each pesticide.
We understood regulation as setting the maximum residue levels (MRLs) of pesticides. If a product was in breach of its stipulated MRL, it was illegal or adulterated. This was how we understood 'safety'. But how wrong we were.
"The apple and milk has more pesticides" chant of cola companies made us dig deeper. We researched. We understood how the world defined safety of pesticide usage. Indeed, we began to understand that regulation of these small toxins was about regulating pesticides in our food. For this, regulators had to know what you and I were eating and how much. But more importantly, they had to know how much of a particular pesticide we could safely ingest over our lifetime. Then they had to ensure this safety threshold was not exceeded. This was the science, sociology and politics of ADI.
We present to you all that we have understood till now. Our ignorance has shocked us. But we are even more shocked by how little government has done to protect public health. This is a case of sheer negligence, even criminal negligence. What you will read contains tremendous anger, and concern. The system has been 'fixed' against public health and safety. It has been fixed against us.
We dedicate this research to our teachers: the cola companies and their brand ambassadors, particularly actor Aamir Khan. Where would we be without such threatening encouragement?
-- The CSE team
Regulating pesticides on the ground revolves around a yardstick called the MRL -- or maximum residue level -- of a pesticide in a food commodity. It is a legally enforceable standard, and not a safety norm. It is set for a single pesticide, on all the different food items in which that pesticide's residues are likely to be found.
MRL is determined via supervised field trials of pesticides on crops. The intention is to arrive at practicable ways to minimise the residue in crops. Agricultural scientists work to determine the best agricultural practice and recommend the crops for which a pesticide should be used, and how it should be used.
Globally, if pesticide residue in a food commodity exceeds its MRL, then that food is legally considered adulterated, and penalties can be imposed.
Exposure occurs primarily via what we eat. Therefore, knowing human dietary patterns is extremely crucial to determining exposure. But diets differ across the world. How, then, is exposure estimated?
One could do what the JMPR does, internationally. It uses dietary data prepared by the WHO's Global Environmental Monitoring System-- Food Contamination Monitoring and Assessment Programme (GEMS/Food). GEMS/Food released the first-ever global guidelines to predict dietary intake of pesticides in 1989 (revised in 1997). It divided the world into five regional diets -- Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, African, Latin American, and European -- to estimate what people eat. For this they used the FAO's food balance sheet (a compilation of net food balance in countries).
Such data as the GEMS/Food estimates is believed to be adequate at the international level. But because such estimates are often rough and riddled with uncertainties, it is better if a nation develops its own national dietary model, and so estimate exposure.
Exposure is always calculated for individual pesticides. Regulators know the residue level legally allowed for a pesticide on a food commodity, its MRL. Having figured out how much of that food we eat daily, preferably at the national level, they multiply the two quantities to arrive at the pesticide intake we can be legally exposed to. For instance, Indian MRL for pesticide monocrothophos in rice is 0.025 mg per kg. Indian diet for rice is 209 gms per day. Thus, exposure to this pesticide through rice is 0.005 mg per day.
The quantity arrived at through multiplication is called the TMDI, or theoretical maximum daily intake. TMDI is a first step; but if a government wishes to refine this process, it must improve the dietary model, and calculate exposure based not on the set MRL but on the actual residues found in the food -- the estimated daily intake (EDI). Even better, exposure could be estimated by measuring pesticide intake in cooked food, what is called the Total Diet Study.
This is the step that really determines safety. The level of exposure to a pesticide is compared to that pesticide's ADI. If daily intake is below ADI, then the MRL determined for this process is officially adopted as the national standard. However, if the intake exceeds ADI, all the factors involved in estimating a pesticide's standards are reviewed and reworked. In cases where an ADI cannot be established, MRLs are set at "no detection" levels -- here, no residue is allowed on any food commodity.
Finally, the MRLs are also adjusted to build in exposures from other pathways -- water and air -- always keeping ADI in mind. In no case can total exposure exceed the ADI.
Countries following this process have been able to combat health risks from pesticides. But they are confronted with new challenges like multiple pesticide residues and exposure from pesticides that have common mechanisms for toxicity.
THE UNITED STATES: The US implements this process very stringently. It has assigned clear responsibilities to two nodal agencies -- the USEPA and the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). The former is the standard-setting agency. It is entrusted with registering a pesticides for use. Before registration, it follows the above process: it establishes ADI -- what it calls as Chronic Reference Dose -- for that pesticide and sets MRLs (tolerance limits) for residues on food commodities. It makes sure exposure is well below ADI.
USFDA is the enforcing agency. It ensures MRLs are adhered to. It collects samples of food -- raw and processed -- and analyses them for pesticide residues, checking them against the USEPA-set tolerance levels. Samples are collected close to the point of production; also, import samples are collected at the point of entry into US markets. If "illegal" residues are found in either kind of samples, the USFDA invokes various sanctions, such as a seizure or injunction.
As a huge number of pesticides are used in the US, the USFDA uses a multi-residue test method that can detect up to 400 different pesticides in a food commodity.
The process the US follows is very effective It has been able to significantly reduce pesticide exposure. For instance, in 2000 a total of 6,523 food samples were analysed by USFDA -- both domestic and imports. While pesticide residues were found in 40 per cent of domestic samples, almost all -- 99.3 per cent -- had residues below their MRLs. In the imported samples, roughly 4 per cent were found above MRL. Exposure was found to be well within ADIs.
EUROPEAN UNION (EU): The EU process is quite similar to what the US does. Here, the MRL is legally enforceable; non-compliance leads normally to legal proceedings against the supplier. Of late, the EU's Working Group on Pesticide Residues has adopted a policy of "naming and shaming" suppliers and wholesale agencies whose food samples were found excessively contaminated. The most recent annual report of the pesticide residue monitoring programme, published by the Food and Veterinary Office of the European Commission states that of the 46,000 samples of fruits, vegetables and cereals tested by the member countries, only 4 per cent of the samples exceeded MRL, that too by a mere 1.3-9.1 per cent. In the EU, too, the exposure is well within ADI.
OTHER GOOD PRACTICES: In Australia, the ANZFA monitors pesticide residues in foods. According to their dietary exposure report for 2002, the pesticide exposure for different ages and genders were below 16 per cent of the ADIs of all pesticides. All the exposures were found to be well within applicable health standards.
In Canada, too, enforcement works. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) tests thousands of samples annually to ensure MRLs are not exceeded. A four-year study from 1994-1998 tested 44,378 products -- domestic and imported -- and found that 98 per cent of the samples were in compliance. About 93 per cent of processed foods and 75 per cent of fresh samples contained absolutely no residues at all. A five-year study of water wells found that 99.9 per cent of the tested wells met government standards for pesticide residues in water.
But what about India?
Worse still, there is no communication between the two sets of nodal regulatory agencies created under IA and PFA. There is a gross mismatch between the pesticides the CIB recommends for use on a food commodity, and those for which MRLs have been set under PFA for the same commodity.
Take sugar cane. The CIB recommends 13 pesticides to be used. However, under PFA, MRLs for only 2 of the recommended pesticides have been established. Similarly in rice, 56 per cent of recommended pesticides have no MRLs; in wheat, 43 per cent have no MRLs; in mango, 44 per cent. In coffee, 80 per cent of recommended pesticides have no MRLs.
This leads to a bizarre situation. A farmer is 'recommended' a pesticide for a crop, and uses it for that crop. In so doing, he follows the law as laid down under IA. But suppose there is no MRL for that pesticide under PFA. This means the crop cannot legally contain any pesticide residue. Now, if this farmer's crop shows residues of the 'recommended' pesticide, he would be violating PFA provisions. One way or the other, he has committed an illegality.
In India, meaningless standards leads directly to toothless enforcement. The latter is the responsibility of state governments. In states, food inspectors are appointed. They are supposed to keep proper track of pesticide residues in food commodities. To this end, they send samples to state-run laboratories. 70 such laboratories exist. But so does rampant contamination in all kinds of food.
From time to time, these laboratories may find contamination. But they cannot act on it. In such cases, samples have to be sent to the Central Food Laboratories established under the PFA. Four such laboratories exist to verify whether contamination exists or not. This process is so tedious that enforcing standards are almost non-existent.
Pesticide residue are monitored by the All India Coordinated Research Project on Pesticide Residues (AICRPPR) under the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). But its mandate is to research research; it cannot enforce standards. Nothing indicates its helplessness better than a survey it did on branded baby food and milk. The products were highly contaminated (see table below: No action taken so far); but all the AICRPPR did was to smugly proclaim it could merely publish the report. Till today, no action has been taken. There are still no pesticide residue standards for these products under PFA. The report's publication was also an exception; usually, AICRPPR residue monitoring data is treated as a national secret, and kept tightly under wraps.
In sum, the regulatory framework for pesticides in the country has nothing to do with human safety or food safety. The standard-setting agencies are completely cross-eyed. The regulating agency supposed to enforce MRLs does not monitor residues. The monitoring agency that watches out for contamination cannot regulate the poisonous presence of pesticides in food.
Is this merely a classic case of non-accountability? Isn't this pure criminal negligence?
Between 1986 and 1996, AICRPPR analysed 4,111 samples from different states. About 55 per cent of samples were found contaminated; about 10 per cent exceeded their MRLs. Uttar Pradesh and Kerala reported 100 per cent contamination, with respectively 45.9 per cent and 52.8 per cent samples above MRLs. The most contaminated were pigeonpea (58.3 per cent samples above MRL), cowpea (32.7 per cent), snake gourd (19.4 per cent) and cauliflower (16.8 per cent). The three pesticides most prevalent were monocrotophos (31.3 per cent sample above MRL), methyl parathion (30.8 per cent) and DDVP (26.5 per cent).
The most extensive study carried out on milk is the five-year long study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (see box: ICMR tested milk and baby food). AICRPPR has also tested milk and milk products. Says their report: "all the monitoring studies carried out in India show that majority of milk samples are contaminated with residues of either DDT or HCH or both, and invariably these exceed their prescribed MRL levels". A total of 487 samples from 14 locations were analysed. HCH showed up in 89.7 per cent of samples, and 77.8 per cent exceeded this pesticide's MRL. In case of DDT, 86.7 per cent samples showed residues and 43.4 exceeded MRLs.
An analysis of India's research trends reveals two interesting facts. While there was substantial and rigorous research on pesticide residues in the 1960s and 1970s, research frequency started to drop from the late 1980s and became non-existent in the 1990s. Could this be due to the pesticide industry's growing clout? Or did government give up the regulatory ghost? Secondly, less research is made public. Pesticide residue analysis is treated as a classified secret. Senior scientists at the Punjab Agriculture University told Down To Earth that, every year, they send the research they undertake under AICRPPR to the head office in Delhi. But the last report AICRPPR published was in 1999. No data has been made available since. Why? Are scientists now collaborators in poisoning India?
STEP 1: We checked the ADI of key pesticides used in India. JMPR apart, ADI is also fixed by the US' EPA and the Australian government's Department of Health and Aging. Within them, the ADI varied for many key pesticides. So we decided to estimate exposure twice -- using the ADI of JMPR and then using the USEPA threshold. (see table: Differing thresholds)
We do not even begin to ensure safety by fixing the ADI. In fact, we disregard safety and public health completely in our regulations. We register pesticides, we use these toxins but we do not know what our exposure is and how this can be contained. At best and at times, for some pesticides in some food, we fix the MRL. But we don't enforce the legal limits so that is also reduced to a meaningless farce. The system is managed, till it is so compromised that it is deadly for our health.
Estimations show that we exceed the ADI by upto 7,000 per cent in some pesticides. Children -- most vulnerable -- are worst affected. Their daily quota is exceeded manifold. How can this be acceptable? How can this have just happened under the noses of our informed regulators?
We will have to incorporate ADI into our regulatory systems. Pesticides can be registered for use only when the estimations of the intake and exposure have been completed, and established to be safe. For this, MRLs will have to be fixed at the time of registration. The government will have to do calculations based on diets, and only then register. Then, only if consumption is below safe levels. Only then.
Currently we exceed the ADI because we have set very high MRLs -- legal limits for residues in our food. This will need to change. There is a ridiculous policy initiative to "harmonise" Indian MRLs with MRLs set under Codex Alimentarius -- the global food standard agency. We need to harmonise our pesticide standards with our diets, not with Codex.
Because we exceed the ADI, we have no space for non-essential foods. Remember, pesticide regulation is about a nutrition-poison trade off. If our daily diet of pesticides is being exceeded just via essential food, we cannot allow pesticides in non-essential and non-nutritive foods. This is why we cannot allow pesticides in coke or pepsi (see box: And...coke and pepsi?).
But also, we will need to enforce the legal limits through an effective programme of surveillance and enforcement. We cannot argue that we cannot control pesticide contamination on our raw agricultural commodities and so cannot enforce standards for food safety. This is unacceptable. No, this is completely wrong.
Finally, we have to remember that regulation will cost. Every time we register a pesticide for use we will have to incorporate this cost -- of regulation and enforcement. Otherwise, we are discounting the real costs -- of ill health, perhaps death. This deliberate style of negligent governance -- criminally negligent -- must stop.
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