Pesticides And Health Hazards

Uttam Maharjan


The government made it mandatory by publishing a notice in the Nepal Gazette on June 17 for fruits and vegetables to be tested for quarantine and residues of pesticides at the concerned border points when they are imported. The decision won public applause from all over the country. However, the government abruptly withdrew the decision on July 4, citing lack of adequate preparations, non-existence of testing labs at the customs points and pressure from traders. The new provision left hundreds of trucks carrying fruits and vegetables at the border points stranded, creating a scarcity of fruits and vegetables in the country. The government has, however, said that once necessary equipment has been purchased and labs installed at the customs points, the provision will be reintroduced. As per the government, it will take at least 10 months to install the necessary infrastructure. The abrupt decision of the government has drawn flak from several quarters, including lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties and the general public.
The country is not self-reliant in fruits and vegetables. As per the customs data, the country has imported vegetables worth Rs. 26.47 billion and fruits worth Rs. 17 billion from India in the first 11 months of the current fiscal year. This shows that the country imports fruits and vegetables worth Rs. 48 billion from India per year. The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control under the Ministry of Agriculture conducts pesticide tests.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are good for the health. So, the doctors advise us to consume fresh fruits and vegetables to keep healthy. But in the market, it is hard to find fruits and vegetables free from residues of pesticides. Pesticides, also called biocides, are widely used in agriculture to kill or destroy pests like weeds, fungi, insects and rodents so as to increase production and extend the storage life of fruit, vegetables and other crops. Pesticides also help in maintaining or enhancing the quality of crops. Most of the pesticides imported from abroad are used on vegetables. But most of the farmers lack a proper knowledge of the use of pesticides. They do not know about the active ingredient or molecule present in pesticides. They do not know about the types of pesticides, the level of poisoning, safety measures and potential hazards on the human health and environment. Sometimes, they happen to use date-expired pesticides, which are even more harmful.
In the developed countries like the US, the farmers follow the norms on the regulation of the use of pesticides. However, no such practice exists in the country. As such, both the farmers and consumers are exposed to pesticide risks to a great extent.
When pesticides are sprayed on fruits, vegetables and other crops, the residues still exist even when such food products are in the market. The residues of pesticides are low in quantity but can accumulate in the human body over time. Pesticides can cause several health problems like cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, damage to the liver, kidney ailments, respiratory ailments and problems associated with the nervous system. Some research has shown that pesticides can give rise to problems with motor skills, behavioural disorders and delayed or stunted growth in children. Children are more sensitive to pesticides as they are in the growing stage. Vulnerable from a viewpoint of health, children may develop, inter alia, cancer, mental illnesses like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pregnant women and lactating mothers may also be badly affected by pesticides. Pregnant women may face birth complications. Even the development of foetuses may be affected by pesticides. Other effects of pesticides include nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, dizziness and the like.
Most pesticides are broad-spectrum chemicals that destroy both target and non-target organisms, meaning both useful and harmful organisms are destroyed. There are also safe pesticides but their use is limited for lack of knowledge and due to inadequate publicity.
The country has also banned some extremely harmful pesticides like DDT, dieldrin, mirex, texaphene, BHC, methyl parathion and monocrotophos. However, due to porous borders with India, such banned pesticides may often enter the country.
The country has a policy for the judicious use of pesticides and safety regulations but it has not been practised. For the safe use of pesticides, integrated pest management (IPM) needs to be strictly adopted. The IPM recommends alternatives to harmful pesticides and chemicals such as biological pesticides, botanicals and safe chemicals that cause very little harm to the agricultural system. The IMP also plays a crucial role in growing healthy crops, conserving biodiversity and ensuring food safety, among others. It also helps and encourages farmers to develop bio-pesticides and organic manure.
It is surmised that the use of pesticides on crops in the country is high. The use of pesticides in India is even higher. It is high time the haphazard use of pesticides was regulated and the farmers were trained in the proper use of pesticides as per the guidelines of the FAO. Besides, public awareness about the use and harmful effects of pesticides needs to be propagated far and wide. It is equally important to develop alternatives to pesticides such as bio-pesticides for safety.
Considering the harmful effects of pesticide-laced foot products, it is necessary to check food products, including fruit and vegetables, for residues of pesticides while they are imported or exported for the safety of the human health and for the preservation of the environment. The country has the right to ban the import of pesticide-laced food products, including fruit and vegetables, as per the guidelines of the WHO and FAO.
The initiative taken by the government in checking fruit and vegetables being imported from India for residues of pesticides at the border points was praiseworthy but something went amiss, leading to the postponement of the arrangement. Therefore, the initiative needs to be revived by establishing necessary infrastructure at the border points at the earliest.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000)  

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