The year 2015 saw the rise of a pesticide-war between the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, actively being fuelled by both pesticide manufacturers and proponents of anti-pesticide, pro-organic agriculturalists. The bureaucracy in Kerala and politicians in Tamil Nadu were also important participants in the controversy, which included legal notices and media outrages.
It was in May 2015 that the controversy started, with Keralaâs food safety department Commissioner sending a letter to the agriculture department stating that there was high pesticide content in the vegetable produce exported from Tamil Nadu. The letter was based on an analysis by the Kerala Agricultural University. The claims were however claimed to be questionable since the pesticide-levels were found to be under permissible limits in most of the cases. The letter however set alarm bells ringing in the state of Tamil Nadu, with official denials being issued by a Minister on the floor of the state Assembly. On what basis was the Kerala government spreading paranoia about pesticide in vegetables, asked officials in Tamil Nadu.
Besides the TN government, the one group which was extremely annoyed by the developments in Kerala was the pesticide lobby. Crop Care Federation of India, a non-profit body propped up by pesticide manufacturers and marketers, took the Kerala government head-on. CCFI sent legal notices to a bureaucrat in the Kerala government, held press conferences in Tamil Nadu and lobbied hard with different stakeholders to put across their point of view that pesticides content in vegetables are within permissible limits and therefore the produce is safe to consume. According to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, 98% of the agricultural commodities (food grains, vegetables, fruits, milk etc.) do comply with the legal upper limits fixed for pesticide residues, says the CCFI.
Over the months, the controversy has worsened. One of the theories which is being floated by the pesticide lobby is that the KAU is furthering the idea that pesticide content in vegetables from other states is high to promote their product âVeggie Washâ, a solution developed by the KAU to clean pesticide residue off the vegetables.
The CCFI has now sent a legal notice to Vice Chancellor of KAU accusing the latter of manufacturing and selling the Veggie Wash without registration under the provision of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, stating that their âbusinessâ is âunlawful, illegal and actionableâ. Where is the scientific evidence, asks CCFI.
P Rajendran, the VC of KAU however has hit back at CCFI for the legal notice, although not legally. Speaking to The News Minute, he said that Veggie Wash was a product developed by a competent authority and that CCFI's stand that their product does not conform to the rules will not stand in court.
A pertinent question being raised is this â why is a non-profit which is a front for pesticide companies bothered about a product which is to be used to wash residue off vegetables before consumption?
When asked about this, S Ganesan, the policy advisor to CCFI, says that they are engaged in this battle in the interest of the public and scientific evidence.The legal notice which has been sent to KAU by CCFI states that they have the âfundamental dutyâ to uphold Article 51 of the Indian Constitution which seeks to promote âscientific temperâ, which they define as an outlook founded on scientific knowledge and experience, based on reason and rationality. âLet them prove that the veggie was is effective,â says Ganesan.
That an organization which is the front for pesticide manufacturers is spending time, effort and money in battling Kerala government, only to uphold some Constitutional idea of âscientific temperâ is downright laughable. To even suggest that there are no business considerations in going after the product seems unbelievable.
Surprisingly, even the VC is not very forthcoming on the reason behind Crop Careâs legal assault on Veggie Wash. âI am told that pesticide manufacturers are behind this,â he says, âI think you know what that means.â He has however stated on record that he has received âthreat callsâ on this issue in the past, but not anymore.
What is clear is that both sides are shadowboxing over what is an important consumer issue. The sequence of events seem to have been the following: to promote organic farm (which is a commendable cause), the Kerala government and KAU seemed to have gone too far in creating an alarm and paranoia against vegetables from other states, and now the pesticide lobby is now fighting the KAU tooth and nail, even on products like Veggie Wash which, if really effective, could be of use to the consumer. The shadowboxing has only one innocent victim â the consumer.
Even those who have defended the use of pesticide have encouraged the practice of washing vegetables before being consumed. Writing in the Business Standard, Aruna Urs writes, âFor consumers, the risk of eating vegetables with high residues of pesticides gets highly diluted as a produce from particular farm gets pooled in every step of supply chain, but the farmer consumes what he grows. And that is where the efforts should be directed. The work is cut out for extension services to nudge farmers towards judicious use of pesticides so productivity increases further without compromising their own health. It is a long-term battle and until then, please do take this advice from Kerala agricultural university: wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consuming it.â
It is expected of business lobbies to protect their commercial interest and for Universities to further their research agendas, but when both sides claim to act in the interest of the consumer, it would perhaps be better for the KAU and pesticide companies to work together than fight each other. Neither legal battles nor media-fuelled paranoia help the consumer.