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 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
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