FAW attack: Centre orders seed treatment with ‘unapproved’ chemicals

The government has recommended use of controversial chemicals for treatment of seeds without prior permission from the Central Insecticide Board and Registration

By Jitendra
Published: Wednesday 29 May 2019

Without any recommendation from its own scientists, the central government has come out with a controversial chemical solution to control the crop-destroying Fall Armyworm (FAW) or Spodoptera frugiperda — which has been destroying maize crops across India.

During the annual National Conference on Agriculture on April 25-26 to assess prospect of upcoming Kharif crops, the government recommended use of two chemicals — Cyantraniliprole and Thiamethoxam — for treatment of maize seeds.

After the FAW attack was first reported in Karnataka last year and further spread across the country, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) constituted a team of scientists to look for a probable solution.

Scientists, who were part of the committee, were surprised over the latest recommendations. “These chemicals were approved to contain Stem-Borer pests, but not for FAW,” said a scientist at ICAR, who was also a member of the team.

“We were not given approval of ‘Extension of level’ by CIBR. We don’t know how the government has adopted these chemicals,” added the scientist. Extension of level is a term used for chemicals, which are suitable for treating one particular pest, but can be extended for other pests as well.

Further, the chemicals were recommended without prior permission from the Central Insecticide Board and Registration (CIBR) — a premier organisation which regulates the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides with a view to prevent risks to human beings and animals, and for other matters connected therewith since 1968.

Dilip Srivastava, Assistant Commissioner (Quality Control) Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine & Storage, said that it is an emergency situation where the Union Ministry of Agriculture had consulted ICAR which recommended use of these chemicals of FAW.

“But even recommendation of ICAR must be scrutinised by CIBR,” said a scientist of ICAR, on condition of anonymity. “CIBR doesn’t only look into effectiveness of chemicals but it examines its environmental and biological impacts. These chemicals, however, have not been tried, tested and registered with the CIBR,” he added.  

The CIBR also specifies the necessary precautions against poisoning through the manual on use and handling of insecticides. “The government cannot recommend a chemical which is not listed with CIBR,” said RK Tanwar, principal scientist (Entomology) at the National Research Center for Integrated Pest Management (NRCIPM).

“It looks like the idea of using these chemicals was either pushed from outside or adopted from other countries with FAW presence; which is not the right way to use any chemical,” he added.

Incidentally, Syngenta, a Switzerland-based agrochemical company, has recommended using these chemicals to contain FAW in its brochure in affected African countries. It claims that both chemicals provide protection up to 30 days after emergence, leading to better management of costs and foliar application, while maximising yields.

There is no clear link that ICAR has adopted this solution from this brochure. But it raises questions. No official or scientist was ready to admit on record that these chemicals were pushed on farmers under pressure from Syngenta.

“It is quite clear who has recommended its use, despite number of studies showing its negative impact. It also shows who is going to benefit out of such a decision,” said a scientist, on condition of anonymity.

Experts believe that the chemical — which has been made compulsory for maize farmers — can potentially damage biodiversity of the country.

Hyderabad-based non-profit Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) has also written to the government, claiming  that the recommendation is “illegal”. “We have contested that the government’s recommendation of seed treatment with these chemicals is illegal,” said GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, CSA.

Ramanjaneyulu added that the recommendations have not taken into account the international published information which flags serious concern with cyantraniliprole and thiamethoxam.

A study even shows that these chemicals were ineffective for FAW. The report, titled Fall Armyworm: Impacts and Implications for Africa, was prepared by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) and UK Aid; and published in September 2017.

This study gathered evidences and claimed that these chemicals were not just ineffective, but also proved extremely hazardous on the ground.

Around 9.3 million hectares of land is used to grow maize across the country, which produces 28 million tonnes per year. If the farmers are forced to use these chemicals, then it can potentially damage the crop biodiversity across large swathes of land and also increase farmers’ costs. At the same time, it would be a boon for chemical makers.

FAW’s first outbreak was detected in Africa in 2016. It has now spread across Asia, including in India, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

FAW, an invasive pest, was first reported in the fields of Chikkaballapur district in Karnataka during a survey conducted between July 9 and July 12, 2018. The survey was conducted by the National Bureau of Agriculture Insect Resources (NBAIR), which is part of ICAR.

The Fall Armyworm caterpillar is native to North America. It destroyed maize crops across Africa in 2016 and 2017, putting the entire continent’s food security at risk. The pest has destroyed more than 70 per cent of the crop in Karnataka, said AN Shylesha, scientist at NBAIR, who was part of the study.

A rapid breeder, the insect is known to eat 300 species of plants, most of which are major food crops. It has diversified its diet and can survive harsh conditions by migrating to different places or hiding, to spring back when conditions are favourable.

Its wide dietary platter along with its phenomenal spread across two continents — Africa and Asia — has made FAW an agent of global food production crisis.

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