May 16, 2013

First in mother's milk, now 21 different pesticides have been found in umbilical cord blood. The UN says there are safer agro-ecological alternatives available.

There is something going wrong. While I find every year more research tumbles out on the harmful effects of chemical pesticides, its usage continues to grow substantially. Its either that we don't care and give a damn to these research reports or perhaps we leave it to the policy makers to take a final call. Whatever be it, the facts remain that the concentration of pesticide residues in our bodies is reaching an appalling level. 

So far we knew about pesticide residues in mothers milk, and we have also been told that the damage is not only restricted to agriculturally farmed lands. Even in the Antarctic, researchers have detected pesticide residues in penguins. The reach of the deadly chemicals therefore is far and wide. 

The US-based Environment Working Group had recently reported: "Most babies today are born with persistent pesticides and other chemicals already in their bodies, passed from mother to child during fetal development. 21 different pesticides have been found in umbilical cord blood, suggesting tremendous potential damage at a critical developmental time. Since a baby's organs and systems are rapidly developing, they are often more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposure.  The immature, porous blood-brain barrier allows greater chemical exposures to the developing brain." I find this to be not only alarming but worrying. 

If you are still not moved, here are a few more startling facts that might give you a jolt. Thirty years after it was banned, DDT still exists in the cells of Americans. US consumers get upto 70 daily exposures of pesticide residues from persistent organic pollutants (POPs) through their diets. In a well-documented analysis, Organic Valley website (

Many pesticides are known to pose significant, acknowledged health risks to people—including birth defects, damage to the nervous system; disruption of hormones and endocrine systems; respiratory disorders; skin and eye irritations; and various types of cancers.

  • Exposure to persistent organic pollutants through diet has been linked to breast and other types of cancer, immune system suppression, nervous system disorders, reproductive damage, and disruption of hormonal systems.
  • Male Reproductive Development: Hormone-disrupting chemicals in commercial pesticides have been linked to testicular cancer and low sperm counts in men, and to birth defects in baby boys.
  • Public health costs associated with pesticide-related acute poisonings and cancer alone, add up to an estimated $1.1 billion dollars per year.
  • Parkinson's disease has been linked to pesticide exposure.
This brings me to the issue whether we have alternatives to the deadly chemical pesticides. In an evaluation of the non-chemical alternatives to endosulfan, the latest among the chemicals whose production and use is being phased out, a working paper of the the United Nation's Environment Programme (UNEP)  has talked of ecosystem approach or agro-ecological approaches to crop production. It quotes the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Dr Olivier de Schutter, who in his report delivered to the 16th session of the UN Human Rights Council listed out various options that are being successfully tried.  

The UN report says: "De Schutter references a report by Pretty et al12 which found an average crop increase of 79% in 286 sustainable agriculture projects based on agroecology, in 57 countries covering 37 million hectares, rising to 116% for all African projects and 128% for East Africa. He also refers to a study commissioned by Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures, of 30 projects in 20 African countries, which found a an average 213% increase in yields with sustainable agro-ecological practices within 3-10 years. He concluded that scaling up agro-ecological practices can simultaneously increase farm productivity and food security, improve incomes and rural livelihoods, reverse the trend towards species loss and genetic erosion, and assist adaption to climate change."

Quoting Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu and Raghunath of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, the UN report further says: "CMSA (Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture) has significantly reduced the costs of cultivation without significantly reducing productivity, resulting in a net increase in farmers’ income and significant health and ecological benefits. By 2009, over 300,000 farmers on 550,000 hectares of farmland in Andra Pradesh had adopted CMSA in four years. In 2011, those figures were reported to have grown to over 10 million farmers on over 10 million hectares." This is no small achievement. If pesticides-free agriculture can be successfully practiced in 10 million hectares, I see no reason why it can't be replicated in the rest of the country. 

It is therefore not correct to always quote the TINA (there is no alternative) factor when it comes to chemical pesticides. It is high time we, the average consumer, becomes aware of our own health as well as the safety of the environment we live in. The onus of safe and correct policy approaches actually lies on us and not the policy makers. It is just because you have kept mum all these years, and continue to suffer in silence, that the policy makers have promoted unsustainable options. Time you woke up. 

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