Five popular chemical pesticides – Glyphosate, Parathion, Malathion, Diazinon and Tetrachlorvinphos – that the research arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorized as ‘probable or possible carcinogenic’ are widely used in India.
While the report has triggered a massive debate in Europe and America on the need to regulate or ban these pesticides, it has been simply glossed over by policy makers, scientists and environmentalists in India. For a country which spends more time discussing pedestrian issues, health and environment are far away from national concerns.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) at Lyon, in France, has categorized the most popularly used herbicide Glyphosate, which comes branded as Roundup, as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. Two of the pesticides – Tetrachlorvinphos and Parathion – have been classified in the 2B category and rates as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ while three other chemicals – Malathion, Diazinon and Glyphosate – as ‘probably carcinogenic’ and put in the category 2A. These are all organophosphates.
In India, while Roundup is the most popular used herbicide, Methyl Parathion, Malathion and Diazinon too are widely used in agriculture. Tetrachlorvinphos is approved for flies and ticks. Interestingly, many of the chemicals are approved for restricted use, knowing very well there is no way to check its actual application. Take for instance Methyl Parathion. Its use is banned for fruits and vegetables, and also for crops where honeybees are acting as pollinators. How can the Central Insecticides Board expect farmers to make a distinction between honeybee pollinating crops and other when applying Methyl Parathion?
Similarly, Diazinon is banned for use in agriculture except for household purposes. Is there any way to police the farmers after they have purchased the chemical from the market? How will you know, given the educational standard of Indian farmers, whether they read the fine print on the pesticides container and apply accordingly? Take Methyl Parathion use in fruits and vegetables. It is officially banned, but it is widely known that traders dip certain vegetables in Methyl Parathion solution as it provides shine to the veggies.
The pesticides registration process therefore is a sham. Since it escapes public scrutiny, I haven’t seen the working of the Central Insecticides Board ever come under the scanner of the investigating agencies.
Some 261 pesticides are registered for use in India. As many as 67 pesticides banned in other countries, are being used in India.
There is a strong lobby in favour of chemical pesticides, and every time environmentalists question the need for some of these pesticides on health and environment grounds, a court case is often slapped. So much so that film star Aamir Khan too was served legal notices after his show on pesticides in Satyamev Jayate. Nevertheless, I still remember a study published by Dr David Pimental of the Cornell University in the late 1970s wherein he estimated that 99.9 per cent of the pesticides go into the environment and only 0.1 per cent of the pesticides hit the target pests. I had always wondered why this study was never taken seriously by agricultural scientists knowing very well how toxic these chemicals are.
The International Rice Research Institute, in Manila, the Philippines, too showed in early 2000 that pesticides on rice in Asia were ‘a waste of time and effort’. The IRRI study showed how farmers in Central Luzon province of the Philippines, and in Vietnam, Bangladesh and India were producing a bumper rice harvest without using chemical pesticides. Even this report was never taken seriously by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the umbrella organization for farm research in the country. And when I hear Ajay Vir Jakhar, president of the Bharat Krishak Samaj say that pesticides use in wheat has gone up by 300 per cent, a crop which is generally considered to be hardy not requiring much application of chemical pesticides, it clearly shows how ruthlessly harmful pesticides are being promoted.
Genetically modified (GM) crops have further pushed the application of chemical herbicides through the spread of herbicide-tolerant crops. It is primarily for this reason that the global market for pesticide is expected to grow from $ 197.9 billion in 2014 to $ 207.9 billion in 2015 and soar to $257.7 billion in 2019 (see the industry report: https://www.reportbuyer.com/product/170499/). The WHO report should therefore be used as a loud warning, and immediate corrective steps are called for. We can ignore the warning at our own peril.