Poison Report

How contaminated is food in India?

Published: Wednesday 31 December 2003

Poison Report

Contamination of food and water is dangerously high (see table below: Track record). According to a 1999 AICRPPR report -- Pesticide Safety: Evaluation and Monitoring by N P Agnihotri -- only 2 per cent of food commodities worldwide were found to be above MRL, but in India this figure was as high as 20 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, food samples exceeding MRL were as high as 46 per cent and 53 per cent respectively. In general, fruits and vegetables and milk are India's most contaminated.

Fruits and vegetables
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).

Milk and milk products
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?

Track record
Summary data showing contamination of different food commodities in India (1965-1998)
Food item Samples
(per cent)
Wheat 1,352 628 46.4
Rice 463 405 87.4
Sorghum 137 52 37.9
Pulses 487 211 43
Vegetables 6,803 3,642 53.5
Major vegetables* 2,930 1,659 56.62
Fruits 458 192 42
Spices 284 183 71.5
Honey 148 135 91.2
Total 13,062 7,107 54.4
*Tomato, okra, cabbage, brinjal, capsicum, potato, cauliflower
Source: G S Dhaliwal and Balwinder Singh (eds) 2000, Pesticides and Environment, Commonwealth publishers, New Delhi, p 207

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