Are we all victims of slow poisoning?
Quazi Salim Uddin

To date, statistical data about the use of pesticides remains very difficult to obtain

  • Are they unwittingly poisoning themselves? 
    Photo- Shekhar Mondal/ Dhaka Tribune

At long last, the government has taken due cognisance of the serious threat posed to public health by unsafe food. The government deserves thanks for this.

Most foods, be they cereals, vegetables, milk, fish, processed, etc, contain highly toxic chemicals. These chemicals, in the form of pesticides, dyes, preservatives, sweeteners, flavouring, hormones, etc are being used at an alarming rate and in herculean proportions.

Print and electronic media, different organisations, and the public in general, have drawn the government’s attention to this threat and have demanded that an appropriate law be to formulated, and for a supervisory body to be formed, to address the issue effectively.

The Ministry of Food has now decided to form a single agency to ensure safe food, called the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA).

A law has also been drafted for passage in the parliament’s present session. We should hope that the law is passed and that the BFSA will become fully functional, sooner rather than later.

This article focuses on the risks faced by the public, resulting from the use of toxic chemical pesticides in agricultural products. Contrary to general the perception that formalin is the only threat, agricultural production staples, such as fertilisers and insecticides pose the main threat to public health.

To ensure that people have access to safe food, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) has to play its role in gradually reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of chemicals in agriculture, to make Bangladesh an organic country like Bhutan. Very recently Bhutan declared itself an organic country, like the state of Sikkim in India.

Fortunately, the MOA acknowledges the deadly effect of pesticides and calls on people to “ese less pesticide to save life and environment.”

The ministry also has an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) policy committee to regulate the import of synthetic chemical pesticides, and a body to introduce chemical-free (organic) agricultural production. But in the fields the scenario does not reflect this.

To date, statistical data about the use of pesticides remains very difficult to obtain. From the available data we can get a general idea of the gross abuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in our agricultural sector.

According to bureau of statistics data, fertiliser sales during the 1980-81 fiscal year (FY) were about 8.75 metric tonnes (mt) which shot up to 35.8mt during FY 2010-11. About a 400% jump! Pesticides used in 1989 amounted to about 4,800mt, and in 2010, amounted to 29,000mt. Almost a 600% jump! With so much utilisation of fertilisers and pesticides, the yield of rice and other items should have increased by at least fourfold.

But the yield in agricultural products, especially rice, is very low. In FY 1971-72, it was 2.87mt/hectare, and 2.94mt/hectare during the 2001-2010 period – a meagre 0.07mt/hectare increase. It is a similar case with other main agricultural products.

Then we can conclude that cropped area must have increased. Again, the increase was marginal. From 137m hectares in the FY 2006-07, it increased by only 1.2m hectares in 2010-2011.

This data indicates that our farmers have been caught in a vicious cycle, where they have been using more and more chemical fertilisers and pesticides to maintain the yield rate.

Yield has not increased but input costs have, with many folks jacking up prices of essential agricultural products. Well-entrenched groups with vested interests make money from selling fertiliser and pesticide. The financial subsidy for agriculture in the next FY (2013-14) is Tk90bn.

If the MOA had implemented an IPM, costs of production would definitely have reduced. People would be able to get food at a relatively cheaper price, farmers would get better prices, and fewer subsidies would be required.

One may ask: “If the yield of rice has not increased then how are we self sufficient in rice FY 2012-13?” The reason could be, in recent years 2m acres of land have been taken over for rice cultivation, reducing the land allocated to the cultivation of pulses, oilseeds, tobacco, jute, sugarcane.

Synthetic chemicals are, ultimately, all poisons. Only the levels of toxicity vary. Chemicals can retain their toxic characteristics from weeks to years after application.

Hence, the threat is long-term. It is a well-established fact that chemical fertilisers severely affect soil health and turn it into barren land with pests that are immune to pesticides.

The use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is detrimental to the sustainability of agriculture. This practice has to change to save our ecosystem and aquatic life, to reduce human suffering and to reduce enormous social, economic and financial costs.

In our country, their effect on human health is not only a result of the residue of these chemicals in agricultural products, or of indirect poisoning of the environment and the food chain. It is also a result of direct poisoning.

Our vegetable farmers not only spray 600% more than required, they also spray their crop up to 150 times a season. The vegetables are harvested without waiting through the mandatory gap between application and harvest. They are marketed within hours of application. The same goes for fruits.

So, it is more than just residue, people are subject to direct poisoning. We all are victims of slow poisoning. The most vulnerable are the 1.5 crore peasants who are apply, or are in direct contact with, these pesticides.

A UN report highlighted many negative aspects of continuing the use of chemical pesticides, and the benefits of introducing some of the programmes mentioned above by using other countries’ experiences as examples.

But where does that leave us? It is assumed that neither the government, nor any concerned body, has carried out studies to ascertain, in tangible terms, the costs and effects of the rampant use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

The government must provide not only food security but also safe food. If so, they have to very seriously and immediately address the use of chemicals in agriculture.

A comprehensive IPM should be launched throughout the country. Chemical fertilisers should not be supplied free of cost or at subsidised rates. The import of pesticides must be better regulated and import duties should be raised to discourage their rampant use.

NGOs should also be tasked and encouraged to join this effort. If slow poisoning of people cannot be reduced to a minimum level, it will not be long before we see tangible detrimental effects within the population. We, the people, must raise our voices, and demand poison-free safe food for all. 

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Quazi Salim Uddin

Lt Col Quazi Salim Uddin (retd) is a freelance contributor

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