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Pesticide companies' lobbying 'seriously impairing' basics of governance, regulation

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi* 

The Indian agricultural sector is grappling with low incomes, shortage of natural resources, increasing pest incidence and low public investments in research and extension. Pest attacks are increasing. Previously unknown pests are attacking crops. Farmers, indebted as they are due to various market mechanisms, are finding it hard to protect their crop investments. Thus, farmers are pushed into the conundrum of pesticide usage by pesticide markets and companies. Pesticide usage in India is increasingly becoming a regulatory problem.
Regulation has not been effective in the face of such challenges. Scientific expertise on pesticides is often subsumed in the policy tradeoffs that, in the ultimate scenario, encourage production and marketing of Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs). Expert Committee reports, which are recommending withdrawal of certain HHPs, are not being acted upon. Lobbying by pesticide companies has seriously impaired the basics of governance and regulation. Even research is severely debilitated.
Amendment to pesticide legislation has been pending for the past 15 years or more. A comprehensive pesticide regulatory law and related mechanism of effective implementation still remains unfulfilled. Pesticide Management Bill has undergone several changes, since 2008, but still remains on paper because pesticide companies are not agreeing to scientific regulation. Pesticide approval conditions remain on paper, since no one is aware of why and how a particular pesticide has been approved. Transparency is lacking. People cannot access approval mechanisms.
There is no congruence between approved conditions and recommendations of pesticide usage by various universities across the country. Scientists based in Universities and research institutions routinely recommend pesticides for pests and crops, without reference to the registration conditions.
Registrations are themselves are based on efficacy data submitted by the applicant pesticide companies. Usually, farmers are blamed for indiscriminate usage. But, pesticide regulators, pesticide companies and agricultural scientists do not have consistency in their recommendations. This leaves the farmers to do their ‘own’ research, by trying combinations of pesticides, and end up with consequences.
Our report ‘State Of Chlorpyrifos, Fipronil, Atrazine And Paraquat Dichloride In India’ reveals serious problems of pesticide usage in India and points to poor regulation of hazardous agrochemicals. There is widespread unauthorised use of chlorpyrifos, fipronil, atrazine and paraquat in India, posing threat to food safety and environmental contamination.
While these four pesticides were approved for use in India for specific crop-pest combinations, the study uncovered numerous unapproved uses in food and non-food crops. Chlorpyrifos is approved for 18 crops in India, while this study found its use in 23 crops. Fipronil is approved for nine crops and field use was recorded for 27 crops. Similarly, atrazine and paraquat dichloride are approved for one and 11 crops respectively, field uses have been noted in 19 and 23 crops respectively.
Of serious concern is that the study uncovered agriculture departments/universities and pesticide industry recommending unapproved uses. These high numbers of non-approved uses pose serious questions on the safety of agricultural produce and environmental contamination. The Maximum Residue Level (MRL) for agriculture produce is monitored based approved uses and therefore, non-approved uses are largely unmonitored for MRLs which is a serious food safety concern domestically, as well as a treat to international trade of agriculture commodities.
HHPs are being marketed, as companies are pushing their products through advertisements and sales networks. Often, farmers are misled and influenced into using pesticides that are not recommended for the purpose. Farmers are led to believe that pesticides are the easy choices for the problems they are facing in crop production. HHPs are being pushed as technical answers to social problems such as labour shortages. Herbicide usage, as studies show, is linked to the perception that it’s better to use these hazardous products than manage local agricultural labour.
Negative consequences of such usage are not recognised by the farmers. Farmers who are aware of the hazardous impacts of herbicides and pesticides feel there is no other way. It’s a kind of Hobson’s choice.
Pesticide poisoning is causing ill-health in rural communities and chronic impacts on the health of, particularly, children and women. Sociological groups such as farm labourers and small farmers have become extremely vulnerable to the poisonous effects of pesticides. The persistence of these chemical contaminants in water, soil and air is perpetuating the problem, unseen and unnoticed.
This is where the need for proper agricultural extension services is felt. However, governments have been withdrawing from providing extension services, forcing farmers to depend on advice from the sales persons at local shops for agricultural inputs. Financial linkages also force the farmers to heed advice from these sales persons.
Agri-inputs shop owners allow farmers to purchase agriculture inputs (seeds, fertilisers and plant protection chemicals) without over-the-counter payment, and the shop owners deduct it later from the harvest payments, or, farmers pay after the market sales. Thus, a financial bondage is established. This bondage has become a tool for pesticide companies to push their hazardous products.
Pesticide Action Network India (PAN India) in collaboration with PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) is working on various initiatives to get rid of these HHPs and reverse the harm caused by them. A study of four pesticides – two insecticides namely chlorpyrifos and fipronil as well as two herbicides, atrazine and paraquat dichloride – is part of these initiatives. Education and awareness on pesticides is required.
Recently, the Malaysian government banned the use of the HHPs chlorpyrifos and carbofuran in the agriculture sector effective May 1, 2023. Chlorpyrifos was already banned in 39 countries prior to Malaysia’s announcement. India should take similar action.
Farmers and consumers need to understand the long-term consequences of pesticides that are primarily designed to kill life. Scientists have to do more research on harmful impacts of pesticides. Policy makers also need to increase their awareness and focus on regulating these pesticides, and put the welfare of the farmers and their communities before the profits of the pesticide companies.
Pesticides have been identified as one of the major factors in causing climate change, through their destructive characteristics. Banishing pesticides is one of the options for conservation of Earth and its biodiversity.
---
*Policy expert and steering committee member, Pesticide Action Network India

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