Why Brazil’s new pesticide rules should worry India

The country's dilution of rules for pesticides such as glyphosate could spell a health crisis in India, which consumes its beans
President Jair Bolsonaro with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2017, Brazil was the third-biggest seller of beans to India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
President Jair Bolsonaro with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2017, Brazil was the third-biggest seller of beans to India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

India needs to watch out as Brazil, Latin America’s powerhouse, dilutes its regulations related to pesticide rules.

Late last month, Brazil’s health surveillance agency, Anvisa, approved new rules which said pesticides in Brazil would be categorised as ‘extremely toxic’ only if they carry a ‘risk of death’.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies pesticides into four classes on the basis of toxicity: extremely dangerous, highly dangerous, moderately dangerous and slightly dangerous.

According to the new rules, ‘extremely dangerous and toxic pesticides’ will now be reclassified into lower categories.  

The new rules are thus contrary to the existing classification model that considers death risk, along with other effects like skin and eye irritations. While a person may not die due to impact on the skin or an eye, these are certainly indicators of hazardous impacts on health.

Anvisa’s dilution of rules is only the latest in a series of similar instances.

In January this year, media reports had noted that the Brazilian Congress was getting ready to revise its three-decade old agrochemical law. Environmentalists and activists warned that this might weaken the role of the health and environment ministries in pesticide approvals.

It would also loosen rules for pesticide use. A change in terminology proposed by the bill, which replaced ‘pesticides’ with ‘phytosanitary defensives’ or ‘environmental control products’ could be misleading, the environmentalists said.

Brazil, beans and glyphosate

Two years ago, Brazil was the world’s top exporter of soyabeans and captured half the market, followed closely by the United States of America.

Brazil's soyabean exports hit a record of 83.6 million tonnes last year. This year too, it is on its way to being the leading exporter of soyabeans globally due to the increasing demand from China, the US Department of Agriculture has noted.

In fact, Brazil aims to increase its global export of beans by nearly 3.7 times in nearly a decade.  Over the next year, Brazil’s companies are expected to reach a target of $80 million in the food and agriculture business.

According to the agriculture ministry of Brazil, the country aims to increase the export of beans by 3.7 times per year till 2028 under the ‘National plan on developing production chain of beans and pulses’, announced last year.  

But there is one big hitch in all this: pesticides.

Brazillian farmers use pesticides in growing all of the country’s major export crops — soyabeans, corn, sugarcane, coffee, rice, beans, and cotton.

Among these, soyabeans is a major crop that is laden with pesticides. While pesticide use in Brazil has risen three-times faster than production per hectare, each one per cent increase in soyabean production has been accompanied by a 13 per cent increase in pesticide use.

It may be noted that glyphosate is used on around 95 per cent of soyabean, corn and cotton harvested in Brazil and there is no readily available substitute.

And here is the catch. In September last year, registration of new glyphosate-based products in Brazil got a go-ahead.

This is of concern since the widely-used herbicide has been linked to numerous health problems. It has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an intergovernmental agency under WHO. The herbicide has been the target of a $2 billion lawsuit in the United States.

In January this year, the Russian Federation's health authority was the first to tell the agriculture ministry of Brazil that it would stop buying Brazilian soyabeans if the glyphosate herbicide were to be kept on crops intended for the Russian market.

After Russia, the Swedish supermarket chain Paradiset too ordered the removal of all Brazilian products and called for a general boycott on Brazil until the government changes the policy on pesticides.

Brazil and India

In 2017, Brazil was the third-biggest seller of beans to India, with six per cent of the market share, after Myanmar (60 per cent) and China (10 per cent).

India imported 34 million beans from Brazil and the Brazilian Bean Institute (Ibrafe) aims to double Brazilian exports by 2020, with the support of the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Apex-Brasil) and the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply (MAPA).

Since India does not have any set standards for maximum residual limits for glyphosate, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has decided to use the standards set by Codex Alimentarius, a joint committee set up by the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization.

It has also suggested the testing of imported shipments of these products for compliance with these limits.  Last year, the presence of glyphosate in imported pulses has been of concern and according to a statement by Union Minister of State in the health ministry, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, MRL for ‘Glyphosate’ in pulses as specified in Codex standards will be considered for the purpose of import clearances. 

Even as Brazil is likely to go ahead with its agenda on revising and weakening pesticide rules with support of President Jair Bolsonaro, the global consumers or the importing nations need to be cautious while granting import clearances to crops from Brazil.  

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