Agriculture

Punjab wants farmers to stay away from 9 pesticides. Will it help?

Europe tightened import norms since 2018, has shown reluctance to import basmati rice with pesticide residues earlier

 
By Rajeev Khanna
Last Updated: Thursday 25 June 2020
More than 600,000 hectares of land in Punjab is used to grow basmati rice, according to experts Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The Punjab government’s recent advice for farmers to refrain using nine types of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides has left agriculturists and experts divided. Many farmers in the state cultivate basmati rice, which is exported to Europe, where countries have tightened pesticide norms since 2018.

Countries across Europe and those in west Asia have, in the past, shown reluctance to import basmati rice with pesticide residues as well.

The advisory — issued on June 22, 2020 — asked farmers to not use acephate, carbendazim, thiamethoxam, triazofos, tricyclazole, buprofezin, carbofuron, propiconazole and thiophanate methyl on basmati rice and other crops.

Officials and exporters said curtailing the chemicals was the need of the hour and was to the advantage of both the state and its farmers.

More than 600,000 hectares of land in Punjab is used to grow basmati rice, according to experts.

Eight of the state’s 22 districts provide ideal conditions for growing basmati rice popular in European countries, said Sutantar Kr Airi, the director of the state’s agriculture department.

“These districts have ideal low temperatures during the ripening of the crop in October and this provides a distinct aroma to the crop,” he said. The residual effects of pesticides in crops have led to export hindrances because of strict import norms, he added.

Gian Singh, an expert in agricultural economics based out of Patiala, underlined the issues of using pesticides not just for basmati rice, but other crops as well.

One of them was the use of new agriculture techniques introduced in the 60s. These techniques promoted the use of fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, along with other chemicals and machinery, said Singh.

“The motive was self-sufficiency and increasing produce for the market. While farmers received favourable Minimum Support Prices (MSP) between 1965 and 1969, things changed afterwards,” he said.

The cost of production increased and remunerations became unfavourable, leading to commercial interests becoming the most important for farmers, according to Singh.

“The concern for the safety and well-being of the consumer took a back seat,” he added.

In certain cases — particularly for a few vegetable crops — the amount of pesticides sprayed was so much that plants did not need a repeat spray for 15 days, according to Singh. They, however, should ideally have received sprays after a day, Singh said, adding certain chemicals sprayed on edible plants kept wood free of insects and fungus for several years.

The farmers, however, have another story to tell. Gobinder Singh of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) said farmers being trapped in the wheat-paddy cycle was the biggest cause of the high use of pesticides and other chemicals.

“The farmer has no choice. He is trapped in this cycle and a growing number of diseases — particularly in paddy — leads to the high use of chemicals. There is still no proper treatment available for the recurring problem of Brown Hopper in the paddy crop and this leads to the farmers resorting to high use of strong pesticides,” he said.

Government advisories on mild use of pesticides do not work for farmers economically, according to him.

“Suppose there is an advisory to use a certain amount of pesticide over five acres of cultivated land. The farmer, however, uses the same amount over just three acres, as he looks at increasing the productivity of the crop,” Singh said.

The solution was to break up the wheat-paddy cycle and diversify the state’s agriculture, he said.

This is, however, not possible without government support and large-scale interventions that have not come at the pace required.

“The farmers should be encouraged to go in for cultivation of maize and the 1509 variety of paddy, commonly known as Vanaspati rice, which consumes less water and is good in taste and quality,” he said.

Farmers cultivating these crops must be given a lucrative MSP and not left at the mercy of private players in mandis (markets), according to Singh.

Another concern over government advisories — particularly for export-oriented crops — is a certain number of farmers not adhering to them.

There will always be farmers agreeing to give up the use of pesticides and those who continue to use them. This poses problems for those who procure these crops for export, as they are the ones who face international buyers and their stringent norms.

Balkrishna Garg Bali, a prominent rice exporter in Punjab, said exporters are forced to conduct intense testing of the produce they receive. There are instances where basmati grown with and without pesticides is mixed, making it difficult to segregate it, said Bali.

“Such shipments have to be diverted to other countries importing rice from us as there is high chance of such shipments being returned from countries with strict import norms,” he said.

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