I am not someone who usually goes shopping for vegetables or even other food stuff. My present professional requirements don’t allow me this luxury. But I remember when I was a child I would often accompany my mother or my aunt when they went shopping for vegetables, fruits and other food stuff. I remember being thoroughly bored during these trips. They would spend hours selecting vegetables, examining each fruit or vegetable with great interest, pointing out flaws and insisting on the best quality and the most fresh food, and constantly comparing the quality offered by different sellers. All this while my friends were waiting for me to join them for a game of cricket! Today when I pass Khar market [in Mumbai], or the road that leads to Khar Telephone Exchange on Linking Road, which is lined by vegetable and fruit sellers, I look at all the women doing exactly what my mother and aunt used to do and it takes me down memory lane to those afternoons or evenings spent following them around carrying heavy bags. How much time our homemakers spend in selecting fresh food for us — little do we realise that no matter how fresh the vegetable or fruit maybe, it may still contain high levels of poison in it.
We can test the freshness of a fruit by holding it, smelling it, giving it a soft squeeze, checking for bumps and spots and bruises. But how do we check the level of pesticides contained in it?
Why do we eat food? Obviously, because our body needs the nutrition in order to survive. Nutritious food contributes to our physical and mental growth, our well-being, our ability to fight diseases, etc. But if we consume large amounts of pesticide along with our food, then along with nutrition we are also consuming poison, and that defeats the very purpose of eating the food in the first place.
In the 1960s, India experienced what was called the Green Revolution. Policy makers at that time felt that in order to feed the growing population in India, we needed to increase the productivity and per acre yield. In order to achieve this result, interventions were made in traditional natural organic farming — interventions that were big on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Pests or insects damage our agricultural produce by feeding on it. To destroy or kill these pests we use what are called pesticides. Pesticides are basically poison to kill the insects. Apparently, of all the pesticide sprayed on the crop, only one per cent of it actually falls on the insect. As much as 99 per cent of it falls on the crop, gets absorbed in the soil, and/or water, gets carried a little distance by wind, etc. In this manner it gets into our food and, thereby, into us.
Nature has its own way of keeping a balance and therefore, each one of these pests which destroys our crops, also has predators. So broadly speaking there are two kinds of pests — vegetarian pests or those that feed on our crops, and non-vegetarian pests or those that feed on the pests that feed on our crops. A pesticide does not distinguish between veg and non-veg pests. It’s a poison that kills both. So having killed our friend insects we are then left with those pests which have survived the onslaught of the pesticide. Their survival creates resistance in them to these pesticides, and to kill the same insects you have to spray more pesticides. It’s a vicious circle. A circle from which we have consistently been removing our friendly insects; a circle which perhaps also results in us consuming more pesticides.
Plight of the farmer
If pesticides in our food affect us, how does it affect our farmers? Well the people spraying pesticides are in the immediate vicinity of the pesticide and therefore are much more exposed to it than us, the consumer. This is cited as one of the major health hazards for persons engaged in farming. Also, one of the stated reasons for farmer indebtedness is the huge cost of pesticides. An experiment with non-pesticide farming done in Andhra Pradesh which began with a few villages on 225 acres has been so successful that it has now spread across 35 lakh acres! And this has been possible because of the effort of a women’s collective across villages with the support of the Andhra Pradesh government. Sikkim is the first State in India to go fully organic, with more States seriously looking to make the shift.
The arguments for and against pesticides are many and have been dealt with in great detail on our show. For me, the choice is simple: I personally feel we have no option but to move gradually towards organic farming. And, until such time that we are fully organic, we need a government regulatory authority to do monthly checks on the food coming into wholesale markets across the country in all the different cities, and to monitor the amount of pesticide in our food.
In the meantime, live with this report from the Centre for Science and Environment: assuming that the pesticide content in each and every food product we consume does not exceed the MRL (Maximum Residue Limit) of pesticide in our food, and is at permissible level, even then, anyone with an average daily intake of various foods, will exceed the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of pesticides by approximately 400 per cent!
(Aamir Khan is an actor. His column will be published in The Hindu every Monday.)