India File

Bringing back the goodness

Updated on: Oct 12, 2015




Is that fruit in your hand healthy? Even as the debate on the use of chemicals in food heats up, these three stories raise hope for what we love to eat

Ashok Gaekwad and rest of the grape farmers in Maharashtra will not forget the 2008-09 season in a hurry. They had incurred a loss of over ₹250 crore when export consignments – mainly to the European Union - were rejected due to higher than permissible pesticide residues in the grapes.

Six years on, the picture has undergone a dramatic change. Last year, the Nashik and Sangli regions of Maharashtra exported one lakh tonnes of grapes to over 19 countries, including the maiden consignment to Russia.

Though exports in 2014-15 were nearly half of the two lakh tonnes during 2013-14, the revenue at ₹1,250 crore was just 25 per cent lower than the previous year, indicating an improvement in fruit quality that fetched the farmers better rates.

The success is the result of a sustained effort by various agencies in improving farmer education, disease forecasting and monitoring of residue – of pesticides, fungicides and insecticides. Technology has become an enabler to send critical information to farmers.

“In those days, the farmers were unaware of residue standards, and the chemical CCC was found to be the main culprit behind the rejection of the export consignments,” says TS Mungade, Assistant General Manager of the Grape Growers’ Association, Maharashtra. Chlormequat Choride Cycocel (CCC), also known as Lihocin, is used as a growth retardant.

Gaekwad, who is a former president of the Grape Growers’ Association, agrees that ignorance was the major culprit for chemical residues.

“Farmers would use an application recommended as an `organic’ product and discover afterwards that it contained some banned chemicals,” he explains, pointing out that the government had no control over this. Gaekwad grows grapes on a 200-acre farm near Nashik and has been exporting the fruit for over 20 years.

Understanding the weather “Disease and pests are a problem of more rain, while insect infestation is a result of less rain,” explains SB Sawant, Director, National Research Centre for Grapes (NRCG) , at Manjri near Pune.

The NRC has developed a disease forecasting system based on real-time data collected from a network of 85 weather stations set up by the government in the grape-growing belts. A company called Crop Tech developed the app from which the information can be accessed.

“Each of these stations sends data to a central server. Farmers who subscribe to the service (they need to key in the latitude and longitude of their farms) get access to seven-day weather forecasts from the nearest station on their cell phones. A mathematical rule-based model calculates the weather pattern and risk of disease for the next seven days,” says Sawant.

He adds that the advisory is based on the growth stage of the vines. Last year, about 3,000 farmers (of 29,000 grape growers) availed themselves of the services. This year the target is to connect with 10,000 farmers. The second significant input from the NRCG is the residue. It prepares Annexure 5, which lists the permissible chemicals.

This year, the list released on September 7, listed 46 chemicals and the maximum residue limit (MRL) guidelines as defined by the EU and FSSAI (the food regulatory body in India).

The NRCG has also put into place an elaborate residue monitoring plan through the Referral Monitoring Lab (RML) set up at its premises near Pune. The lab prepares a subsequent second list – Annexure 9 – that lists the 185-odd chemicals available in the Indian market that will be tested; it prepares standardised protocols for testing each of them.

Testing residue The labs across the belt which wish to sign up for testing residues are first put through a qualification process. Only those that pass this test (which involves identifying chemicals in a concoction prepared by the RML) can undertake testing of grapes for residues.

“This is an annual process and the chemists are trained on global multi-residue analysis methods,” says Sawant. Every farmer who wishes exports has to register on Grapenet - the APEDA’s e-governance tool - and submit applications with the state department.

Since the pruning status of every vineyard is on-line, a local agriculture officer does the ground certification. Chemical residue monitoring on fruit is done for every two-hectares of farm.

The publication of lists of banned chemicals and those available in the Indian market, in addition to information on acceptable levels of MRL and PHI has benefited farmers enormously. “This is why the number of farmers who register on Grapenet has grown from 19,000 three years ago to 29,000 in 2015,” says Gaekwad.

Nature’s vagaries The last but not the least, precautionary measure are in the offing to prepare for the nature’s vagaries.

With unseasonal rains and storms no longer one-off occurrences, grape farmers are working on protecting their vineyards with plastic covers during such times.

“At present these covers have to be imported and the cost works out to ₹6 lakh per acre,” says Mungawade.

But that is expensive as grape is cultivated on about three lakh acres in Maharashtra. In a bid to cut the cost to ₹3 lakh per acre, some firms have been contracted to produce the covers on a trial basis. “We are also asking the government for 50 per cent subsidy,” he says. Maharashtra accounts for nearly 98 per cent of India’s total exports of grapes.

Last year around four per cent of the total production of 25 lakh tonnes was sold in overseas markets, nearly half of which was exported to the Europe.

Published on January 22, 2018

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