Pesticide-rich food

Agriculture department confirms high pesticide residues

By Savvy Soumya Misra
Published: Tuesday 15 February 2011

THE country’s regulators have failed to check the flow of pesticides into the food chain, suggests a monitoring report of the Department of Agriculture and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, the country’s premier institute. Fruits, vegetables, poultry and milk are all laced with high pesticide residues —much above the maximum residue limits (MRL) set by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954. Samples of Amul milk collected from Ahmedabad, for instance, had the highest traces of chlorpyriphos, a known carcinogen that can also cause neural disorders.

The report, which analysed sample food items from 13 states in 20 laboratories across the country between 2008 and 2009, also found several food had residues of pesticides that are either banned in the country or are recommended for restricted use. DDT, for instance, is not recommended for vegetables.

imageBut traces of it—108 times the recommended MRL—was found in tomatoes. Residues of banned pesticides like aldrin, chlordane, chlorfenyinfos and heptachlor were found in samples of vegetables, apple, rice, wheat, milk and butter; most were from Uttar Pradesh.

“The report shows a lapse in the regulatory system,” said G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit in Hyderabad. “Never has a state agriculture officer visited the fields to see which pesticides we use and in what proportions,” said Kultar Singh, farmer from Faridkot in Punjab. Monocrotophos, a pesticide recommended only for cotton farms, is used extensively on vegetables in Punjab, Singh added.

Though the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has uploaded the report on its website, the government is in no mood to own the data in its entirety. When asked about the report, the agriculture department refused to comment and there was no response from the Central Insecticides Board, responsible for regulating pesticides.

An official associated with the report, on condition of anonymity, said the government has informed state agriculture departments about food items that had high pesticide residues. But the report’s data on banned pesticides are “unconfirmed”, “inaccurate” and have “a few aberrations”, he said, blaming it on “evolving technology” in the laboratories. The data for 2009-10 would be accurate as technologies have improved, he added. His claim, though, raise question over the data generated by these laboratories for a decade now.

imageThe report also brings to light the failure of state agriculture departments and extension services in ensuring that farmers use only recommended pesticides for a particular crop or pest. Tea samples from Assam, for instance, had 4.280 ppm (parts per million) fenpropathrin. The UN food standards, CODEX, fixes its MRL at 2 ppm.

The Central Insecticides Board does not recommend it for use in tea plants and has not fixed its MRL under the prevention of food adulteration (PFA) Act. The official said Tea Board of India is lately promoting fenpropathrin as replacement for dicofol, a miticide. Instead of cracking the whip on the Tea Board, the agriculture ministry is contemplating label expansion, meaning, expanding the use of a particular pesticide for more crops.

Ramanjaneyulu said there is not enough research by agriculture universities to support label expansion. In fact, several pesticides like fenpropathrin do not have set MRL due to lack of research and their residues are never traced in food in the country, he added. The report also shows fruits from US and China contain high pesticide residues, including the banned aldrin.

While Indian exports go through a tight scrutiny, it seems the checks for what India eats are missing. FSSAI, which is responsible for ensuring a safe food supply, has just issued an advisory to state food authorities to take legal action for violation of the PFA Act.

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