The Department of Agriculture is gearing up to establish a State-wide network of laboratories equipped with facilities to detect pesticide residue in horticultural products.

The laboratories will be set up under a programme to ensure the supply of safe-to-eat products for consumers and minimise health hazards posed by constant exposure to pesticide residue in vegetables and fruits.

The government has issued directions to vegetable farmers to stop the indiscriminate use of pesticides and instead turn to biocontrol agents, pheromone traps, and other safe pest control methods. “The farmers will have to utilise 40 per cent of the Rs.10,000 subsidy per hectare on safe plant protection methods. The government, on its part, will ensure adequate supply of inputs for farmers,” said P. Rajasekharan, Chief (Agriculture), State Planning Board.

He told The Hindu that the production of safe-to-eat vegetables would require elaborate facilities for testing pesticide residue.

“The laboratories will be set up in the next phase.” He said the programme assumed relevance in the light of the forensic report that revealed pesticide contamination to be the cause of the noon meal tragedy that claimed 23 children in Bihar.

“The unfortunate incident has to be seen as an opportunity for us to address the pesticide safety issue,” he said.

KAU initiative

Meanwhile, Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) has launched efforts to sensitise vegetable farmers in Thiruvananthapuram district on the need to adopt safe plant protection practices. The KAU is on the lookout for farmers willing to produce safe-to-eat products and is working on the establishment of a monitoring mechanism to detect pesticide contamination at source, said Thomas Biju Mathew, Principal Investigator of the project. The Pesticide Residue Research and Analytical Laboratory at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani, had detected heavy pesticide contamination of vegetables imported from Tamil Nadu. Analysis of samples of curry leaf, coriander leaf, mint leaf, and green chilly regularly supplied from big farms at Kaaramada near Mettupalayam had showed heavy load of Profenofos and Chlorpyrifos, organophosphorous fertilizers not recommended for vegetables.

Samples of okra, cabbage, and cauliflower grown in farms near Coimbatore also revealed high levels of pesticide residue.

The laboratory is developing protocols for consumers to remove pesticide residues from high risk vegetables and fruits. The KAU is also preparing to establish another laboratory at the College of Agriculture, Padannakkad, Kasaragod, this year.

The university has tied up with the Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation (Horticorp) to promote safe-to-eat vegetables under the brand name Amrut.

Dr. Mathew said that the pesticide contamination of vegetables produced outside the State could be addressed only by involving the food safety wing and stepping up vigilance at check-posts. He said it would require stern action such as heavy fines and return of consignments, to deter farmers in neighbouring States from exporting pesticide contaminated vegetables to Kerala.

The draft agriculture development policy, now under the consideration of the government, has recommended popularisation of cheap, quick, and non-destructive methods of detecting pesticide residue in raw fruits and vegetables.

It has also stressed the need to promote organic pesticides.

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