In the past few months, two parallel developments have engulfed the agriculture and farm industry in Kerala.
First, the Kerala government has raised a red-flag over the presence of pesticides in vegetables which are being imported from other states. Riding on the fears of pesticide-infested food, there is a push by the state government towards organic farming.
The ensuing paranoia over pesticides and the aura created around organic farming has left agriculturalists and industry experts wondering why there is a sudden alarm against pesticides and a subsequent campaign for organic farming. Headlines like "Kerala eats out of Tamil Nadu’s poison platter" have been splashed across.
On 20 May 2015, the Commissioner of Food Safety in Kerala sent a letter to the Agricultural Production Commissioner in Tamil Nadu which got alarm-bells ringing in the Tamil Nadu establishment. In the letter, addressed to Tamil Nadu government bureaucrat Rajesh Lakhani, Anupama TV of Kerala government says that there was "indiscriminate use of pesticide in the vegetables cultivated in the State of Tamil Nadu".
In the letter, a copy of which is available with The News Minute (TNM), she further states that according to the analysis by Kerala Agricultural University, the level of pesticides is five to ten times higher than what is permissible. Following this, a three-member committee was sent by the Kerala government to Tamil Nadu to study the usage of pesticides and chemicals.
The committee, she says, submitted an "alarming" report of unsafe and unscientific practices of farmers in Tamil Nadu which are leading to health problems for farmers and consumers in both the states. Anupama offers the report to Lakhani and asks that the Tamil Nadu government looks into the issue. But it has emerged now that the bombastic claims made in the report could have little or no factual basis, and the Kerala government could well be aware of that.
TNM has directly obtained of the latest available analysis by the Kerala Agricultural University and the report by the three-member committee from Kerala. According to the Kerala Agricultural University, the last available analysis of pesticide-levels in vegetables is available for the months of October to December 2014. This analysis, done every quarter, is in association with the Department of Agriculture and Horticulture. Every quarter, around 200 samples are tested from various districts of the state. In the October-December analysis, samples were taken from several supermarkets and vegetable vendors.
Out of the 17 fruit varieties tested, only one – green grapes – was found to have raised a red-flag. Even so, it was in one out of the three samples tested, and the level of chlorpyrifos found in it was 0.5 ppm, the exact amount of the pesticide deemed permissible by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Among the 34 varieties of vegetable samples tested, there were four varieties in which few samples showed to have had pesticides above permissible limits. They were capsicum, green chillies, spinach and curry leaves. In none of the samples were the pesticides more than 2 times what is permitted.
Even in the reports from previous quarters, the KAU analyses showed similar results. Further, now where in the report is it mentioned if the samples tested by the KAU were of vegetables from Tamil Nadu as Anupama’s letter states. Surprisingly, the very experts who conducted the pesticide analysis for the KAU say that the alarmism is ill-advised.
"The situation is not that alarming as media say because we have a majority of pesticide free vegetables," says Dr Thomas Biju Mathew of the Pesticide Residue Lab at Agricultural College in Vellayani which conducted the tests. Adding that India has not even developed all scales for the testing of pesticides in vegetables, he says that it is wrong to make the assertion that pesticides in vegetables were up to "five to ten times the permissible limits".
The three-member committee from Kerala which went to Tamil Nadu also starts its report on the possibly false premise that analysis of the Kerala Agricultural University found pesticide residue up to five times the permissible limits. In a five day visit to Tamil Nadu in May, the committee visited nine places in Tamil Nadu and met at least seven Tamil Nadu state government officials. The report is based on members observing farming practices in Kerala and the committee does not seem to have actually tested any of the vegetables during their field visit. The report claims that several pesticides are being used by farmers in Tamil Nadu, some three to five times the permissible levels.
The report also alleges that farmers are not observing permissible time periods and intervals for the use. "The entire field is controlled by pesticides companies and even expired pesticides were forced to use for economic reasons," says the report, adding that the officials from TN are unable to interfere. They go on to list out various pesticides which were found in their visits, as this Times of India report points out. Not all researchers are however completely convinced by the report. One, several observations have been made at the cultivation stage, when use of pesticides is allowed. Of the pesticides listed in the report, only one, Monocrotophos, was prohibited and others were allowed. Farmers also say that pesticide levels must be tested at point of sale, in markets, and not in farms.
The Crop Care Federation of India, a body backed by pesticide manufacturers and marketers, has not taken kindly to the Kerala government’s onslaught. Having business interests in the sale of pesticides to farmers, the CCFI is known to take on any governemnt on an anti-pesticide campaign. "What should also be considered is the half-life of the pesticides, which significantly vary from one to another. There is significant degradation, dissipation and disappearance of the pesticide after the harvest in some cases," says S Ganeshan, Advisor to the Crop Care Federation of India. In a letter to Anupama TV, the organisation states that the statements by the Kerala government are "baseless, unfounded and of malafide intention".
The CCFI presents data from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute to show that the amount of fruits and vegetables in India which have pesticides above permissible limits are at an average of 1.8% and "highly negligible". It further states that Kerala’s own government websites encourage the use of certain pesticides which are banned in India. "Remember, a state that is unable to produce enough food to feed her people has no authority or ethical right to preach to other states on matters concerning agriculture. After all, a person who is bankrupt cannot give credible financial advice," says Rajju Shroff, Chairman of the CCFI in the letter to Kerala government.
The Kerala government however sticks to its guns. "A team had visited the farms of TN and they had collected more than 700 samples and found out that the pesticides are used at a very higher rates. I saw that report and that is why we sent a letter to TN government. The situation is very much alarming," says Anupama TV to TNM. When pointed out the counters to Kerala government’s stand, she says that the other reports based on which the letter was sent to TN government is not out yet. The KAU also states that their yearly compilation has not been published yet. Just as this is unfolding, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has renewed the organic farming campaign in the state.
For years now, Kerala government has been pushing for organic agricultural practices in the state. At a recent event where several ministers and Anupama TV were present, Chandy said, "We should strive forward to attain self sufficiency in all the foods that we consume," adding that organic measures should be given top priority. The event was organized on the backdrop of the vegetable-pesticides controversy. The CCFI is now attempting to tie a knot between the organic farming push and the pesticide paranoia.
For several years now the Kerala government and the CPI(M) have campaigned for organic farming, which many say is a commendable campaign towards chemical-free food products. However, on the back of the possibility that the fears that they have created about vegetables coming from other parts of the country, especially Tamil Nadu, are exaggerated, the CCFI alleges that this is to rake-in farm subsidies which are given by the central government towards organic farms. A letter has also been written to the Primes Minister with such allegations. It seems that the paranoia on pesticides could end up creating dark clouds over the seemingly genuine effort to encourage organic farming in the state.