Despite awareness and crackdown, pesticide-laced vegetables still poisoning consumers
Suddenly the danger of pesticide is splashed all over the mainstream media, and the Nepali public is aware about poisonous vegetables. But while urban consumers do not have safer alternatives, farmers have been adversely affected by falling demand for produce.
The Ministry of Agriculture blacklisted vegetables from districts in the Tarai and surrounding Kathmandu this month after tests found unsafe levels of pesticide residue. But it hasn’t been able to stop their sale and consumers are forced to buy pesticide-laced vegetables that they know is harmful.
Under the personal initiative of Chief Secretary Lilamani Poudel, the government set up a Rapid Pesticide Residue Analysis Laboratory at the Kalimati market, and found 15 per cent of the products analysed had pesticide levels unfit for human consumption. In fact, a recent survey showed that the most-used pesticides in Nepal are actually banned in the country.
Pramod Koirala of the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control says there is no option but to plug the legal loopholes that permit continued sale of banned agro-chemicals and tainted vegetables.
“Farmers are aware of the health hazards, but need to be told about precautions they need to take, Consumer awareness is growing, and there is no alternative to removing banned pesticides from the market and tightening the laws,” Koirala told us.
The Kalimati lab found that 15 per cent of all vegetables recently tested to be contaminated. Some of the potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum and salads have pesticide residue up to three times higher than levels deemed safe by the WHO.
Nepal’s per capita pesticide consumption is one of the lowest in the world, and most subsistence farmers in rural Nepal don’t use pesticides. But commercial farmers supplying produce to city markets often overdose their crop with pesticides, and do not comply with the waiting period requirements before harvesting. The result is that consumers are not fully safe, and farmers now are in danger of falling prices as demand drops, a s survey of markets in Patan and Kalimati this week showed.
Farmers in Tikathali of Lalitpur district argue they have to use pesticides for commercial farming as an insurance against crop failure. Ratna Prajapati, 35, says the negative publicity in the media about pesticides has scared off consumers. “There has been a big drop in sales,” he told us, gesturing at his okra field ripe for picking, “we are now using milder pesticides.”
Down the road, 49-year-old Ramesh Kumar Karki says he has always used minimal doses of pesticides, but is still being punished with the heavy users. “The government should ban harmful pesticides, and get the JTAs to train us on safe use,” added Karki.
Saraswati Basnet, 52, also grows vegetables commercially and says one testing lab will not curb pesticide misuse. “You may stop it in Kalimati, but there are many smaller markets where vegetables with pesticides can be sold,” she said.
For farmers like Sojan Karmacharya, 29, who supports organic farming, the crackdown on pesticides has made no difference: “Eighty per cent of crops in Nepal are still chemical free, and in the city there are markets for organic produce, so consumers have a choice if the government is serious about it.”
Others, like life-time farmer Shyam Maharjan, said publicity about pesticides has made no difference to farmers using chemicls. “They are still spraying pesticides, and they are still selling them,” he said, “soon this will blow over and everything will back to normal.”
The consensus here is that farmers should be given time to switch to safer methods, they should have better training and the government should have stricter monitoring. The only positive impact is that consumers are now more aware than before.
Meanwhile, early on Monday morning at Kalimati, the wholesalers were doing brisk business although most dealers said demand had dropped. “They don’t want insects, they don’t pesticides, what do they want?” asks one angry shopkeeper. “They should be punishing the farmers, not us. Everything has pesticides, it is just a matter of more or less.”
The lab technicians come back to tell the shopkeepers to dispose to throw away veggies that fail the lab test, but they seldom stay behind to check whether the items are actually disposed of. The impression is of a lackadaisical approach to enforcing the pesticide ban and protecting consumers.
Over at the vegetable market at Mangal Bazar, shoppers seemed resigned to their fate. “I know I shouldn’t be buying these cucumbers, but what else will I eat,” asked Gita Gangol, a college teacher, “but just to be safe, I am starting my own kitchen garden.”
Twenty-two-year-old Srijana Regmi says she hasn’t stopped buying greens. “I have to eat after all,” she shrugs. “We can’t tell if these have pesticides or not, so how do I decide? Even if the government says something is pesticide free, I won’t believe them.”
In another stall, Ram Bahadur Shrestha is also somewhat fatalistic about it all. “I have heard about pesticides, but so what? Despite all the news of tests being conducted the same vegetables circulate in the market. We have no option but to eat it.”
Interview with Senior Plant Protection Officer: Dinesh Babu Tiwari
Nepali Times: Can this test identify use of banned pesticides like metacid?
Dinesh Babu Tiwari: No.
What does 100 per cent pesticide mean?
This as it has been misinterpreted. The per cent here is the inhibition rate of acetylcholinesterase (human enzyme). So more the per cent, more it reduces/stops the inhibition rate of this enzyme in the body. It is a measure of pesticide residue, not the poison per cent. We reject all crops that test above 45 per cent.
What per cent of vegetables you tested in the market contain pesticide residue?
Of the 127 were tested in Ashad, 26 had high pesticide content.
Why aren’t the contaminated vegetables destroyed?
There are many problems. We just have four technicians in the lab. The government needs to provide other support like logistics, security, incentives. We only have one spectrophotometer. There should be more.
What is the next step?
There are two types of farmers. First those who themselves aren’t aware about pesticides and are eating their own tainted vegetables. Second type are farmers who are doing this knowingly, irresponsibly. It is a crime, they must be punished.
Which vegetables have most pesticides and from where?
Panauti’s potatoes, produce from Dhading, potatoes and onions from India.