Considering the various deleterious impacts of pesticides, Punjab and Haryana governments banned 10 pesticides last month. But, despite being aware of the reasons for the ban, the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI) has termed the imposition of ban as “trimming the feet to fit the shoes”.

Why did the two State governments ban certain pesticides? Are Indian farmers using more pesticide in crop cultivation? Are there ways to reduce pesticides consumption in agriculture?

The beginnings 

The Green Revolution during the mid-60s brought substantial changes in the use of yield-increasing inputs such as HYV seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This significantly contributed to the production of foodgrains, oilseeds, cotton, horticulture crops, etc. Production of foodgrains alone increased from 52 million tonnes (mt) in 1951-52 to 309 mt in 2020-21. A big revolution has also taken place in the production of horticultural crops, which increased from 97 mt in 1991-92 to 331 mt in 2020-21.

The intensive agriculture practiced over the last five decades has also invited unwanted guests like pests and diseases into the agriculture. To control the pest ravages, farmers slowly started applying pesticides in the 1960s and 1970s to protect crops. But, the post-1970s witnessed a substantial increase in the use of pesticides due to a variety of reasons. For instance, the total use of pesticides was only 14,630 tonnes in 1965-66, but it increased to 62,180 tonnes in 2017-18. That is, per hectare consumption of pesticides has increased close to four times, from 94 grams to 315 grams during this period. Unlike modern seeds and fertilisers, the increased use of pesticides in crops attracted a lot of criticism primarily from the environmentalists because it reduces biodiversity, aggravates the problems of soil, water and air pollution.

Increase in cultivation costs

Studies have reported that the increased use of certain pesticides has created irreparable health problems for people. Therefore, the government has banned the production and consumption of certain pesticides at different time periods based on the findings of the research studies and the recommendations of the Committees.

Studies underline that the increased use of modern pesticides has affected farm workers’ health in the rice-growing regions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

To reduce the application of modern pesticides, the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme was introduced in 1992 which combines the use of biological, cultural and chemical practices to control insect pests in agricultural production. Increased emphasis has also been given to developing pest and disease-resistant varieties to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides. Have these interventions helped reduce the consumption of pesticides in agriculture?

The introduction of new synthetic pesticides has also substantially increased the cost of cultivation in different crops over time. As per the cost of cultivation survey data published by CACP, for paddy in Punjab, the per hectare cost of pesticides application has increased from ₹262 in 1990-91 to ₹5,624 in 2019-20, while the same increased from ₹154 to ₹4,278 in Andhra Pradesh.

Similarly, cotton crop’s cultivation cost increased from ₹680 to ₹5,082 in Gujarat and from ₹757 to ₹7,360 in Andhra Pradesh. A similar increase is also observed in most States in these two crops. Since cotton crop is the largest consumer of pesticides in India, genetically modified Bt cotton seed was introduced in 2002-03 specifically to reduce its consumption. With only 5 per cent of gross cropped area, cotton reportedly consumes 36-50 per cent of total pesticides. But unfortunately, after the introduction of Bt variety of cotton, its area has increased considerably resulting in increased total consumption of pesticides. Paddy is another important crop after cotton in terms of consumption of pesticides, where too the cropped area has increased by about 10 million hectares after the 1960s.

Future focus

A blanket ban on pesticides will indeed hurt the production of crops. The Father of the Green Revolution and Nobel Laureate, Norman Borlaug underlined in the 1970s that a complete ban on pesticide would result in a 50 per cent reduction in the world’s production of crops, which may increase food prices 4-5 times.

Some estimates suggest that the potential production losses in the absence of pesticide application would have been at around 80 per cent for cotton worldwide. But, the recent ban on 10 pesticides by Punjab and Haryana was not done arbitrarily. This was reportedly done on the request of APEDA (Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) and a representation from Punjab’s state Rice Millers and Exporters Association to meet the Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) set by the EU for exporting rice.

An increase in pesticide consumption will increase the burden on farmers and damage the environment. With the increased use of toxic pesticides, snakes, snails, earthworms, etc., are fast vanishing from the farms, all of which are essential part of the farming ecosystem. While every effort is needed to control the consumption of pesticides without harming productivity, concerted efforts are needed to increase the area under organic farming and zero-budget farming, both of which do not require pesticides. By reducing the area under paddy and cotton, the consumption of pesticides can also be reduced considerably as these two crops together consume about 65 per cent of pesticides in India.

Attractive advertisements on pesticides influencing the farmers to increase their use should be banned. Given the changing environment, the pesticide manufacturers should also change their production system from toxic to environment-friendly pesticides.

The writer is a former full-time Member (Official), CACP. Views are personal