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Pesticides creating havoc in India

May 22, 2008

wellA recent report that the DNA of farmers in Punjab might have been altered making them susceptible to cancer is shocking but has come on the heels of many such articles over the past few years…that farmers in Punjab (India’s grain belt) have been overdosing on pesticides and it’s affecting their health. Mutated DNA has been found in the blood samples of 65 percent of those tested in some areas. High levels of arsenic and mercury were also found in the tap water. Ground water is contaminated as well.

There are reports of children in the village of Giana (Punjab) aging prematurely…of birds and fishes doing the disappearing act in another village (Mahal). There is a rise in miscarriages, and worse…fears of children born with congenital malformations. There is an increase in cancer cases.

Pesticide poisoning is a problem all over India
Punjab is showing the most dramatic effects of pesticide exposure but other states like Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (cotton growing states) are also suffering. Children in these areas have suffered “mental development disorders” related to pesticide exposure. Children, often employed to spray pesticides, are particularly vulnerable to even small doses.

In Andhra Pradesh, during the 2001 cotton season in Warangal, from August to December, about 500 farmers/laborers died due to pesticides and almost 1,000 had health problems.

In Kerala, the “crippling results of prolonged exposure to endosulfan in Kasargod district” are well-known.

The causescrops
The reasons for the widespread damage to our environment and to human beings due to pesticides is given below. I have summarized these points from the articles linked to above and the points may not be comprehensive:

  • Not reading instructions that come with the pesticide, which in any case illiterate farmers cannot do
  • Not wearing protective gear or extra clothing as a shield against the spray
  • Exposing women in their childbearing years and children to pesticide sprays
  • Although spraying pesticide is not recommended between the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, it’s still done
  • Although spraying a few hours before harvesting is not done, it is….in fact pesticides are sprayed all the time..during planting, when the tender shoots appear, when the flowers appear and again on the fruit or vegetable or grain itself!!
  • Spraying up to 30 times a year (4-5 times more that recommended)
  • Re-using empty pesticide cans
  • Blatant and indiscriminate usage of banned pesticides (banned in developed countries) or those in the “restricted” category by illiterate farmers. And the more they use, the more they need the next time
  • A lack of monitoring by experts leading to misuse of “safe” pesticides
  • Using drain water contaminated with sewage, fertilizers and pesticide for farming purposes
  • The unholy nexus between government officials and pesticide companies
  • Large scale export of Neem oil, an organic alternative..which is being used by developed countries to stop pesticide contamination in their own countries
  • Lethargy on the part of the Ministry of Environment and Forests which is supposed to monitor and prevent pollution. After all, pesticides are contributing to the disappearing sparrows, frogs, vultures and other species…

All of us are paying the price for this. All water in India is contaminated with pesticide, and so is milk and well, all food produce.

Any solutions?
I am hardly an expert, but from what little I have read it is people at the grass-roots and constantly in touch with farmers who can begin to make the difference.

I also think that animal welfare groups who are usually quite vociferous need to raise their voice against this in a big way…as pesticide use will finally lead to extinction of many species. But in the media one only reads of animal welfare groups protesting against some advertisement or film which has animals in it. I don’t know if this is the fault of the media or the animal groups.

Government intervention is necessary, which basically means stopping all bribes and kickbacks from pesticide companies. A tall order!

I do not think that genetically modified cotton (GM) is the answer because (aside from the long-term implications) Indian farmers have been unable to cope with it.

(Photos are taken by me and copyrighted. They are stock pictures.)

Related Reading: Where have all the Sparrows gone?
You are eating GM food but you don’t know it
Shocking Pollution during the Ganesh Festival

Related Reading: Pesticides poisoning India
Clotheslines are an eco-friendly way to dry clothes
Traffic Pollution – a way to tackle it in cities
Hoarding epidemic in India!
Clothes contain chemicals that could harm you

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2008 10:38 am

    Is it rampant in India only or is it a problem throughout the world?? From what I can understand, illiteracy is the root cause because the farmers don’t take the necessary precautions.
    Also, this means that the pesticides reach us also in the form of the food we eat. So, we too get affected in one way or the other.

  2. May 22, 2008 10:48 am

    Hi Amit. The developed countries have a lot of dangerous pesticides on their banned list and they are actually strict as punishement is stringent for breaking the law. And even the so-called “safe” pesticides have a lot of precautions written on them and as farmers in say the USA can read and write (plus high levels of awareness) they follow the precautions. Europe has banned even more substances than the US. And despite all this, those countries are turning in a big way to organic pesticides from Neem, which we export to them!!

  3. May 22, 2008 11:19 am

    i have a feeling we are getting back to the same thing..about our government,about corruption…and this problem is happening to our food,i.e. the source of energy.We can be without IT but not without food,those who take bribe here are digging their own graves and ours too.I think people need to realise this and take action,there is no use talking about our wonderful government.the people who take bribe must first be made to understand what they are doing,they must be as illiterate as the farmers who over use pesticides …

  4. May 22, 2008 11:24 am

    I feel that the basic cause for such problems is poverty. Due to poverty people are illiterate and are not realizing the hazards of unsafe use of pesticides. They also cant afford protective clothes.

  5. May 22, 2008 1:28 pm

    I do think that genetically modified cotton (GM) is the answer..

    Nita, should that be “…GM is NOT the answer…” otherwise it doesn’t work with the rest of your sentence. 🙂

    oops, yes! Thanks Amit. I’ll correct it.- Nita.

  6. May 22, 2008 3:22 pm

    The farmers must be encouraged to use organic pesticides from neem. In fact in earlier days we were using these only.The government must act on this.

  7. May 22, 2008 4:53 pm

    I wonder why we don’t have periodic analysis of our consumer goods, that is publicized and worked upon. Organic farming is a luxury that may be very difficult to implement given, the need to produce more in what little is available. The burden should not go to the farmer, but the research. Pests need a natural enemy for their control, and human farming, drives the predator before the prey in such a cycle. Neem is not always a solution. We need a massive make over from the brain power of our research for such a step.

  8. May 22, 2008 8:09 pm

    Vishesh, food and health is more important than IT! Well said!!

    Radhesh, poverty and illiteracy, a vicious cycle!

    Old Sailor, Neem is so expensive in India these days and not easily available either! But its so effective…if you use dried neem leaves in your woollens they protect the clothes as well as any mothball.

    thoughtroom, I agree Neem is not the solution, its just a natural pesticide that can replace the harmful ones. As you say, a lot more research in this area needs to be done to find a natural way to combat pests.

  9. wishtobeanon permalink
    May 22, 2008 10:43 pm

    Thanks for the post, Nita, as this is one of my pet topics. I doubt if it is just the illiterates who use/misuse pesticides. This is another one of those areas that need a mass education campaign.

  10. May 22, 2008 10:56 pm

    Just got here from thought rooms post.

    On being asked about the rampant use of pesticides and its affect on humans and why our science labs were not discouraging it, the scientist said, that big deal, only one generation will be affected. After that the other generations would have learned to deal with the altered DNA’s. our bodies would ahve adapted to it. Isn’t human body great!

    I was not present, but heard it from my uncle who overheard this conversation between a doc and the scientist.

  11. May 22, 2008 10:58 pm

    to wishtobeanon:

    the farmers, the illiterates are smarter than us. they do not use the pesticides on the produce meant for their use. Confession of a farmer to my mum. They met in a hospital waiting room in Lucknow.

  12. Tajbinder permalink
    May 22, 2008 11:22 pm

    Nita,Again you mentioned , kickbacks and bribes.! It comes down to this only. One of the challenges to cure a disease is to diagnose the precise cause and voila! in our case the problem stands diagnosed.CORRUPTION and the cure is no where in site.

  13. May 23, 2008 1:25 am

    “Pesticide poisoning is a problem all over India”, that is true. I heard a lot of the case of Coca Cola poisoning Kerala and the ground water there.That was not good.

  14. May 23, 2008 2:09 am

    Coca Cola has spoiled with Pesticide parts of Kerala. The industries should stop this.

  15. May 23, 2008 7:45 am

    wishtobeanon, you are right ofcourse. It’s not just the illiterates. Why, even in a supermarket you see people picking up expired stuff from the shelves without bothering to read expiry dates, and these are educated people. In India the law allows expired stuff to be sold…well not legally but you see it often.

    Imp’s Mom, well I suppose that scientist was talking tongue in cheek! either that or the scientist was pretty brainless. Whole generations are being made cancer prone. And I have also read about that bit about farmers being more careful about what they and their families consume. We are indeed a selfish nation aren’t we…but then our law doesn’t work and people do whatever they want.

    Tajbinder, while corruption has pervaded all areas I think the lack of law enforcement is a huge cause of many of India’s problems. I have written a couple of posts on this, the lack of autonomy to policemen, the shortage of policemen which you can read about here and here.

    Unnikuttan, Coca-cola didn’t have pesticide in the actual concentrate, it came from Indian water. Why do you think coke is being allowed now? Because they found out that the problem is with Indian water.

  16. May 23, 2008 9:03 am

    Well, all those pesticides and chemicals don’t just disappear, but make their way to the seas where they give a serious boost to algal blooms (algal blooms on steroids, so to speak), affecting the marine life and fisheries. An example from the US:

  17. vish permalink
    May 23, 2008 11:13 am

    “Coca-cola didn’t have pesticide in the actual concentrate”

    Nita, are you sure?

    “Why do you think coke is being allowed now?”

    Do you think they would have stopped otherwise?

    The reason given is like one of those ‘post mortem’ results of some unresolved murder case

  18. May 23, 2008 11:21 am

    Vish, well, it is a fact that pesticide is there in Indian ground water and coca cola was getting the water from there, the wells. So I am sure, but don’t for a moment think that I approve of coca cola doing what it did! In fact I have written it somewhere on this blog that Coke should have spend some money and used a technology to get rid of the pesticide from the ground water (such technology exists) but they didn’t bother and the govt. is not forcing them either. In developed countries Coke doesn’t have to do it as the water is better. In fact in developed countries, they have stringent standards for drinking water so Coke or other soft drink manufacturers have no such problem. By the way, the concentrate is imported and there is no way that Coke can ever use pesticide filled concentrate in the home market!

  19. May 23, 2008 11:48 am

    Nita – here in Canada, on of my neighbours, a relatively educated man, but a brick-head, regularly travels across the border to the States to purchase and sneak back pesticides which are banned here, but still available in US stores. This in order to keep his golf-green like lawn free of dandelions, chickweed, hawkweed, marigolds and clover. We have had a die off of song birds in areas where GM canola and corn are grown, with the blessing of our Federal Government. We do not have clear labelling of foods as to what substances they contain or have come in contact with during processing. Pesticide treated food is cheaper and more uniform looking than chemically free organic food, which often does not have that perfect unblemished look and yet is more expensive than the factory farmed perfect looking stuff. Here too, consumers are just starting to become more aware and more vocal in their demands for food labelling and for higher quality of food. Still, it’s an economic problem. The poor, who are largely non-producers of food, cannnot afford untainted food, and thus these things remain in demand, because people expect not to starve, and will eat garbage to survive.
    I can well imagine with the large population that India has to feed to keep alive, regulating crop treatments is fairly difficult as the pressure is on production in huge quantities. And yes, i can believe that farmers will keep untainted produce for their own use.
    A friend’s father died from pesticide poisoning 20 years ago, after he had applied pesticides to his blueberry bushes. This was in my town. Not all farmer’s here take the necessary precautions always, either, but there is ample information about safe farming practices circulating here, and good education programs. G

  20. Joss permalink
    May 23, 2008 5:00 pm

    I have supported for several years the work of Pesticide Action Network UK, which is the body here which raises money for the victims for Bhopal. They have a very informative website. I have just consulted forchemical-free ideas to control pests in my vegetable garden. If you can’t grow your own organic vegetables it is relatively easy to buy them here. I suspect this is not so in India. I hope one day that the Green Revolution comes to mean the same as it does here – nurturing the environment as well as the people who live in it.

  21. Tajbinder permalink
    May 24, 2008 12:52 am

    Autonomy to policemen! Do you think the police enforces law. Just like a parallel economy(consisting of the politicians, top businessmen and bureaucrat’s black money) there is this organised mafia being run by our police.And then all of these joining hands results in a deadly concoction.Look what happened to agitating workers of Honda Factory at Gurgaon.And its no joke that police is aware of a crime taking place before it actually takes place.!

  22. May 24, 2008 9:40 am

    Suburban, thanks. Sad to hear about selfish people like that, without environmental awareness. I guess knowing and not doing is worse that sheer ignorance.
    At times I feel the poor in India get better and healtheir food, I don’t mean in urban areas. I mean in rural areas (65 percenr of India is rural) as they get farm fresh food, often grown in their own backyards. Organized farming is not yet so widespread and I know that many farmers who don’t grow vegetables for commercial use (they have vineyards, sugar cane plantations etc) have a small plot of land where they grwo vegetables for their own use or for some small-scale selling. I don’t know how widespread this is, but I know of many such cases.

    Joss, You guessed rightly that here organic food is beyond the reach of even middle-class people, and frankly, its not even available! Mostly the superich areas have it, and even then I think many rich people in India don’t have the awareness to consume it…I too pray for the Green Revolution to come to India

    Tajbinder, Right now our policemen report to the politicians and that is one of the reasons why they don’t enforce the law. I request you to read up on this. Sure, you are right in the sense that the police need to improve their functioning and become more efficient, but a lot of decisions whether to investigate or not investigate are dependent on who it is they are targeting. There was a recommendation to free policement of this political control by a panel but most states have opposed it. they can easily threaten to transfer or sack any policeman who doesn’t obey them. Police need to be independent of the politicians, like it is in developed countries.

  23. May 24, 2008 6:37 pm

    Nice article, निता!

    Pesticide poising is a slow killer. The worst thing is that pesticides become ineffective against the pests that develop a resistance to them over a period of time, but they are potent enough to kill a human being, like the unfortunate farmers of Vidarbha and elsewhere have found out 😦

    I guess there are bio-pesticides that tackle specific pests. For instance, cats are the bio-pesticides to get rid of rats! 🙂

  24. May 24, 2008 6:49 pm

    It is really shocking to be informed that the food that we eat daily contains toxic pesticides that endanger our health. I was informed that middle class farmers invest more for pesticides than poor farmers. They also invest more for fertilisers and over usage of fertilizers spoil the fertility of land and does real harm. Water in paddy fields is drained into ponds and lakes. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in to fields mixes into water and that water is drained into fresh water ponds and lakes and fish in those ponds and lakes also gets poisoned. That poisoned fish is also available in market. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides harms environment in multiple ways.

  25. January 26, 2009 3:05 pm

    Organic pesticides are the only solution to minimize the use of inorganic pesticides. Now there are lot of biotechnologically derived products that are equal to/better than inorganic pesticides in controlling pests/diseases in many crops.

  26. prashant permalink
    May 6, 2009 8:12 pm

    @Nita….agrochemicals are a vital form of agro input which is a necessity for the crops…why do you take medicine when you have viral or head ache…because it relieves you from that disease….similarly pesticides remove the pests from the crop which otherwise would damage the crop…yes you are right that banned pesticides are used in India…this is the fault of the Indian agricultural ministry…new age pesticides are available in the market which are less toxic and safer to use…but once again remember that the farmers in India are poor and would rather go in for cheaper agro inputs to save there crops…by the way neem is another way of making farmer a does not do anything to the pests as they become resistant to them after a single application…my point is multi nationals should ensure that the farmers use correct amount of chemicals and the government should ban pesticides which are highly toxic and banned by other asian countries….cheers

  27. prashant permalink
    May 8, 2009 5:02 pm

    @ all of you…you need to read this…though this is the US market but just read it…you all are intelligent enough to understand what it says!!!!

    Major study of U.S. insecticide value released
    Source: Crop Protection Research Institute 2009-4-8 11:39:17

    Total crop production in the U.S. would be reduced by about 144 billion pounds without effective insecticides, according to a study recently released by the Crop Protection Research Institute. The three-year study, titled, “The Value of Insecticides in U.S. Crop Production,” was reviewed and endorsed by 22 crop commodity organizations. It set out to answer three questions concerning insecticide use.

    “We wanted to know how many acres were treated with insecticides,” says Leonard Gianessi, director of Crop Protection Research Institute. “We estimate that 45 million acres, or 17 percent, of the acreage of the 50 major U.S. crops received annual insecticide treatment.”

    The institute also studied the value farmers gain from the use of insecticides and how much crop production is attributable to the insecticide use.

    Historical use
    In the 1850s, when there weren’t any defenses against insects, 50 percent of U.S. crop production was consumed by insects in the fields, in storage and in the markets.

    “Growers didn’t really have much that they could do,” Gianessi says. “Fields were often abandoned, and fruit and vegetables in the market were damaged by insects.”

    In some regions, certain crops were so susceptible to insects they were deemed to be no longer viable in the area. Without viable controls against aphids, for example, farmers on the East Coast had to give up growing hops.

    The Colorado potato beetle started attacking potato foliage in 1859. Before then, this staple of the U.S. diet had been relatively safe from pests. But the potato beetle changed that, spreading to both coasts.

    “It was just a voracious feeder on potato foliage,” he says. “Potato production in this country went down by about one-third, and potato prices quadrupled.”

    Something had to be done. In 1871, farmers began spraying potato foliage with arsenic. It controlled the Colorado potato beetle, but it also was burning the leaves of the plants.

    Nevertheless, by 1875, all potatoes in the Midwest were being sprayed with arsenic.

    By the early 1900s, “arsenicals” were in widespread use, protecting apples, cherries, blueberries and tomatoes, among others, in the United States.

    Synthetic chemicals, introduced in the 1940s, controlled more insects with less damage to crops and soil. Since then, their use has been an integral part of crop protection strategies across the nation.

    “There’s one major new insect pest that becomes established every three years,” Gianessi says. “They are becoming established with increasing frequency in recent years because of international travel and changes in climate.”

    Return on investment
    The U.S. farmer today gets a $19 return on every dollar spent on insecticides, according to the report.

    “Insecticides are the first line of defense, Gianessi says. “They are available, they will provide a high level of control and it does allow time for research to look into alternatives if they are needed.”

    The soybean aphid first was detected in the United States in 2000. Before then, soybean growers typically had been successful at managing insects through biological controls.

    “But when this pest came in, it overwhelmed everything in the fields,” he says.

    Soybean yields were lowered by 45 percent in some fields. The industry responded, and today, there a number of controls available for controlling the aphid. According to the study, 14 percent of soybean acres nationwide now are being treated.

    The returns are there, whether insecticides are being used on fruits, vegetables or grains, Gianessi says.

    “Wheat growers spend $23 million on insecticides, and they get $462 million in production value,” he says. “They get $20 back for every one spent on insecticides.”

    Without insecticides, U.S. crop production would be much lower, the report states.

    “In our report, most fruits and vegetables, we would lose well over 50 percent,” he says. “For apples, we estimate a total loss of 93 percent.”

    The report estimates that 29 percent of potatoes would be lost, and 11 billion pounds of soybeans never would leave the field. In all, 10 percent of the U.S. crop would fail without protection from insecticides.

    “These numbers are mind boggling,” Gianessi says.

    The report has been delivered to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Projected crop loss without insecticides
    – Minnesota: $501 million to $978 million.
    – North Dakota: $259 million to $500 million.
    – Montana, South Dakota: less than $259 million each.

    U.S. wheat
    – Insecticide cost: $23 million.
    -Crop loss prevented: $462 million.
    – Return ratio: $20.

    All U.S. crops
    – Insecticide cost: $1.17 billion.
    – Production loss prevented: $22.9 billion.
    – Return ratio: $19.

  28. govardhan permalink
    February 13, 2012 12:12 am

    the thing what we doing is we have a right to chang the input use in agri., but still we supporting those chemicals y y why,
    becose “the effects of pesticide use in crop may even affect some extent, in absence of these chemicals the world may suffer from starvation and which may leads to”………..(think- in shotage or absence of food how may this world and people), so we have to eat poison friends in the form of food.

  29. Anbil Iniyan permalink
    November 16, 2016 2:19 pm

    The awareness level is still very low among many consumers and even producers. Campaigns have to be started to increase awareness level on the issues of using pesticides. I also find an article on face pesticides and over usage of pesticides by our Indian farmers. We have to share these and create awareness.


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