Limiting antibiotics use in crops: What new actions did the government take

There were growing concerns over resistance to streptomycin and tetracycline antibiotics

By Deepak Bhati
Published: Monday 06 December 2021
Government steps up action to limit the use of antibiotics in crops. Photo: Agnimirh Basu

The registration committee (RC) under the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC) August 2021 approved the recommendation for phasing out the use of streptomycin and tetracycline, according to the availability of alternatives. 

It has also highlighted the need for validation of available alternatives on a large scale in the field.

These recommendations are made by a sub-committee formed by the RC to examine the production, sale and use of streptomycin sulphate and tetracycline hydrochloride in crops. 

Read more: Ban use of TB drug on crops: Central panel

Streptomycin is a critically important antimicrobial while tetracycline belongs to the class of highly important antimicrobials, according to the World Health Organization. 

The decision comes amid concerns over antimicrobial resistance observed in various crops, particularly to streptomycin, which is used in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB) which now co exists with HIV infection, and to tetracycline antibiotics, which find application in treatment of various kind of bacterial infections. 

In 2019, Delhi-based non-profit CSE brought to light the misuse of streptocycline (90:10 combination of streptomycin and tetracycline) in crops. Farmers along the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi, Hisar in Haryana and Fazilka in Punjab were using streptocycline routinely and indiscriminately in high doses on crops, including those crops which they didn’t get approval for. 

Farmers were found to be mostly unaware of the recommended use and sprayed antibiotics frequently, like pesticides, as a regular practice. 

CSE had also highlighted the role of streptomycin in treatment of previously treated TB patients, multidrug-resistant TB and some cases of TB meningitis (brain TB). 

A correspondence was also made to crop-specific institutions of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to use streptomycin and tetracycline strictly according to label claim. These institutions were also asked to conduct research to find new alternatives. 

The RC further directed the Monitoring of Pesticide Residues at National Level (MPRNL) project to conduct studies on maximum residue limit (MRL) to generate data on major crops in which label claim for antibiotics is available. The guideline also urged CIBRC to take up the matter related to fixation of MRL fixation with FSSAI.

The above developments follow prior developments made in May 2020, when the RC had accepted the recommendation that use of streptomycin + tetracycline should be completely banned with immediate effect on those crops where alternatives are available. 

Where no alternatives are available, it will be used only on crops strictly following the label claim and should be phased out by the end of 2022. The diseases can also be managed by using integrated pest management and other practices. 

The RC had then also suggested that ICAR may be requested to initiate research towards searching for better and safer alternatives. 

In a subsequent meeting in February 2021, the RC had also noted that the use of streptomycin and tetracycline is approved only on eight crops so far — apple, bean, citrus, potato, tobacco, tomato, paddy and tea — against various diseases. But alternatives of streptomycin and tetracycline are very limited and available only for three crops. 

Considering the role of streptomycin and tetracycline for disease control and the limited availability of alternatives, the RC highlighted the need to critically examine pros and cons, considering the ground realities as well as risk involved.

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