The Centre plans to ban the sale, manufacture and import of 27 pesticides, including popular ones. In its draft order, the Agriculture Ministry points out that these are products that are likely to involve risk to humans and animals and has called for suggestions before a final order is passed.

Understandably, the pesticide industry is opposing it, while many product exporters (especially spices) have welcomed it (as instances of export rejections due to unacceptable levels of pesticide residue is quite common).

Pesticide use pattern

India is the second largest manufacturer of basic pesticides and a major exporter, even as we account for only about 1 per cent of global consumption – 75 per cent of which are insecticides, followed by fungicides (12 per cent) and herbicides (10 per cent). Studies have established that unscientific practices in selection and use are common, even in literate States such as Kerala. Regular preventive sprays without considering the chances of infestation or threshold of pest population are very common.

The same goes for selection of the proper compounds, setting the concentration of the spray fluid, method of mixing and times when they are sprayed. Even the use of appropriate personal protection gear is uncommon. Users typically rely on retailers for guidance on how to use. The dispensers are typically not aware of the best practices for use and are driven by a desire to increase volume of sales – resulting in violation of the law that governs dispensing and use.

Health hazards

All of this leaves the environment and human health at risk, apart from poor efficiency from the use of the chemicals. The WHO estimated that pesticides cause about 30,00,000 cases of poisoning and 2,20,000 deaths around the globe, ever year,which shows increase over years. The human health impacts of pesticide exposure can be both direct (on applicators, users and production workers) and indirect (for consumers who eat food with high doses of residue), and short term (from skin irritations to other health hazards) and long term (such as cancer) – which impacts morbidity and mortality. Majority of these human health issues are reported from the developing countries and the numbers are on the rise every year. Recent studies also establish the direct link between pesticide use and suicide levels.

Studies have revealed that it is possible to reduce pesticide use without any concomitant decline in agriculture productivity, though there can be an initial decline. Costs related to pesticide use in crop production are higher than the gains from the reduction in crop yield losses, it is reported. Indiscriminate pesticide use in rice crop leads to larger pest related yield losses than not applying pesticides at all. Pesticide use has negative effect on farmer health, which in turn passes on to productivity (the simple fact that farmer health and his farm productivity are positively correlated).

Regulatory framework

The proposed ban must be viewed in a larger context – of our plan to revisit the 41-year-old Insecticides Act. The Pesticide Management Bill 2017 is expected to be placed before the Parliament soon. The Bill aims to promote a more scientific approach in the management of pesticide use and its eventual phasing out and promote organic pest control measures by drawing on traditional knowledge, thus promoting sustainable development.

There are a number of measures being proposed to advance these ideas, including granting more powers to the States for management, restricting advertisements and compensating the farmers as a consumer and a more tightened framework to monitor the sale and use. The Bill, is hence a step in the right direction.

Some suggestions

There are, however, a few more things that can be done to tighten the proposed Bill. At present, the Bill empowers the Central Pesticide Registration Committee to allow registration (for sale and use) based on the data furnished by the manufactures, producers and other agencies.

I suggest that they be empowered to take into account experiences from other countries, including whether other countries have banned its use, and take that as a basis to impose a ban in India. Further, registration must be granted only for a specified period of time and not for an indefinite period. Re-registrations must be granted only after a performance review (on multiple parameters such as efficiency, human and environmental health impacts) at the field level.

An independent Monitoring and Review Committee, needs to be created to conduct these studies that aid the performance review. This committee should inter alia, include experts from public health, animal husbandry, toxicology, social scientists and the consumers (representatives from the farming community, farm workers and the consumers at large who can be represented by civil society organisations).

Further, Consumer’s rights also needs more attention and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) can be asked to fix the standards for acceptable levels of residue in all classes of foods, for all the registered pesticides, irrespective of whether it is recommended for use against particular pest in specified crop.

Farmers often use pesticides that are not recommended in that particular crop. The State Governments can be allowed to register bio-pesticides, subject to scientific studies that back its efficiency and lack of harm.

Lastly, a fund may also be set up for paying compensation for human, animal, livelihood and environmental losses resulting from pesticide use – based on the polluter pays principle.

Behavioural changes

The Insecticides Act 1968 was designed in an age that aimed to boost food production. India has now moved beyond that and we aim at exporting to global markets. It is imperative for us to then set in place processes and standards that facilitate global trade – by making products that are safe, healthy and acceptable to the consumers abroad.

We are now in an age that recognises the environmental health and significance of ecosystem services . We have to limit the ecosystem (dis)services from agriculture and ensure that agriculture practices ensure sustainable development and meet food security,safety and ecosystem health.

The writer is Professor & Director of Research (Retd), Kerala Agricultural University. Views are personal