Pesticides cause Cancers: Wake up, Meghalaya!
Thousands of fish were found dead in 2014 in one of our rivers in the Jaintia Hills district. In the Fisheries department, we were alarmed to learn that the fish died due to Endosulfan pesticide poisoning. Someone was sinister enough to poison the fish in a flowing river, and we felt that the matter was too serious to let it go without a policy response. After a few months of consultations with the Agriculture Department, a decision was made at the level of the Chief Minister that the State should stop subsidising chemical fertilisers and pesticides because, for one, (1) the State had already initiated steps to become an organic state, and for the other, (2) the dangers posed by the chemicals to the animal and human health were just too many to be brushed aside. Since then, despite the opportunistic vendors and populistic pressures, the Agriculture Department steadfastly upheld this policy. It was and continues to be the right thing to do – the State cannot subsidise the agents of death.
Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are inevitable for modern crop production systems. Or, so some crop scientists and industry would want us to believe. It is a blatant lie. We can get as much production and productivity with natural farming, and that was how the country’s farmers produced weather-appropriate food for centuries. It was just the bluff of the profiteering MNCs and their agents that we could not do intensive agriculture without chemical compounds. And it needs to be called.
By 2014, the State of Sikkim was vigorously moving toward becoming fully organic by banning the sale of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; our State had already begun the implementation of the Government of India’s scheme MOVCDNER (Mission Organic for the Value Chain Development for the North-Eastern Region). And now, as I write this, the Government of India has already declared that the entire north-eastern region should become organic by 2030. So, the limited point was – if we could not ban the sale of such harmful chemicals like the way Sikkim did, at least we should not subsidise them. So it was a conscious choice made at the highest level of the government to stop subsidising the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And what was the impact of our decision to abolish the subsidisation of chemical fertilisers and pesticides?
This decision reduced the State’s chemical fertiliser consumption by 56.69% since 2014 without impacting our food security. It has also gradually led to increased demand and usage of bio-fertilisers in the State of Meghalaya, a redeeming feature. It opened up opportunities for the local youth to set up bio-product manufacturing units. Kerala, one of the more advanced states of our country, too made a similar effort to reduce its chemical fertiliser consumption and reported a decline from 87 Kg/ha. (2015-16) to 36.49 Kg/ha in 2019-20. Meghalaya has to be far more alert because the fragile ecosystems of hilly states are far more vulnerable to the unbridled use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
A bit of legal awareness is required here. As of March 2021, 293 Insecticides/Pesticides are registered for use in our country under section 9(3) of the Insecticides Act, 1968. More than 115 of these are ‘highly hazardous’, meaning that they can cause severe long-term effects like cancers, hormone disorders, and reproductive and developmental disorders in human beings. Insecticides are classified as carcinogens (compounds that cause cancer) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Herbicides and pesticides are carcinogenic and tumour promoters. The tragedy is that 66 pesticides banned or restricted in the US and Europe were permitted in India for several years until 2021 when India banned 46 highly hazardous pesticides and refused registrations for 18 more. Understandably, there is enormous pressure on the government not to persist with the policy because the pesticide business in our country is nearly a 50,000-crore rupee market, and the lobby of the vendors and agents is powerful and extends up to the village level. The Insecticide Act incidentally was introduced in our country when food insecurity was high, but it is no longer the case. We are now in an era of agricultural surpluses. So, the argument for banning these chemical pesticides and fertilisers is more urgent than ever. What should we care about? The health of the people of the state or the money to be made by the Vendors and Agents?
It is now settled that chemical pesticides are known carcinogens and chemical fertilisers destroy the soil flora and fauna. Continuous use of chemical fertilisers destroys soil fertility and productivity and lowers the nutritional standards of our foods. Worse, the chemical pesticide residues find a way to enter the bodies of both humans and animals through water, food grains, fruits, vegetables and meat. A study indicates that the pesticide residues in the available soft drinks market are twenty-four times higher than the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). The levels of pesticide residue Lindane exceeded the BIS standards by 140 times in some samples. Chlorpyrifos was 200 times more than the BIS standard in a sample obtained from a town in the country.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, with over eight million people succumbing to the disease every year. Notably, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) predicts an increase in new cancer cases from 19.3 million to 30.2 million per year by 2040. According to the National Centre for Disease Informatics and Research of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Meghalaya tops the country in cancers. Some ghastly distinction, indeed! Cancer ranks among the top five leading causes of death in our State. East Khasi Hills district is the second-worst in cancer deaths in the whole country, the first being Aizawl, Mizoram. The NE region’s cancers are nasopharynx (the passageway in the throat), oesophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, larynx, lung, breast, and cervix. In its report on the health sector, the CAG observed that the cancer incidence in the State has increased by 30 per cent in just four years.
There is a scientifically demonstrated association between susceptibility to cancer and direct and indirect pesticide exposure. The literature reveals that work-related exposure to agricultural pesticides increases the risk for 45 different types of cancer. Farmworkers are at the most significant risk of pesticide-induced diseases. The journal – Occupational and Environmental Medicine indicates that farmworkers and persons exposed to high levels of pesticides have an increased risk of developing brain tumours. Furthermore, farmworkers’ children too are at risk as their immune system response is more vulnerable to pesticide exposure.
The cause-and-effect research concerning the seepage of pesticides into our vegetables and fruits, and meat is hardly done with the required scientific rigour in our State, so most are unaware, and the ones who are aware – do not care. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous among us even want to promote chemical fertilisers and pesticides because they will gain financially. Considering that cancer is a significant risk to human health and a global issue, my argument is not limited to research, which should be the basis for public policy in the ordinary course. One need not wait for years to confirm what we already know through research. I will argue that a state like Meghalaya, with its pristine, susceptible, and fragile ecosystem, must go for a complete ban on the sale and use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. The farmers are with us because they always knew this was the right thing to do, most citizens are with us because they are aware that they are turning out to be innocent victims, and the civil society understands this to be in the right direction. Then who is not with us? Your guess is as good as mine.
(The author is Chairman, Meghalaya Farmers’ Empowerment Commission)