'Harmful pesticides in four vegetables' screamed the headline of the lead news item on the front page of the last Sunday's issue of a national vernacular daily. The report quoting the research findings of the National Food Safety Laboratory (NFSL) said examination has detected the presence of pesticides 36 times more than the allowable limit in most winter vegetables grown in places closer to Dhaka and also in distant districts.
The NFSL, established with the help from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, said it has detected the presence of eight types of pesticides in the samples of winter vegetables in quantities far greater than the allowable limit.
However, the finding does only the confirm the suspicion of the conscious section of the consumers, who are aware that most fresh winter vegetables that are now found in large quantities in the markets are laced with 'poisons' called chemical pesticides.
Yet they are left with no option other than consuming those vegetables. However, not all the vegetables contain pesticides more than allowable limit. But there is no way of knowing it. So, the conscious section of consumers buys vegetables with a hope that their ones are safe. Another section of consumers is blissfully ignorant as it does not have any sort of worries. They do know that chemical pesticides are harmful to human health. But they care little about the presence of the same in everyday foods.
It is scientifically proven that residues of pesticides do not get destroyed and the same enters the food chain. The production of a good number of very harmful pesticides has been stopped over the years following recommendations from the relevant international organisations. The pesticides now in use are not supposed to cause any major physical harm to human if those are applied on crops and vegetables in accordance with the recommended doses.
But the problem lies with the farmers, companies selling pesticides, government agricultural extension officials in poor developing countries like Bangladesh.
Being illiterate in most cases, farmers fail to comply with the instructions on the use of pesticides. They have a wrong notion that the application of pesticides in greater volume would better control pests and insects. What is more damaging is that they hardly wear any protective gear when they apply pesticides in the field, exposing them to serious health hazards.
The companies selling pesticides in rural areas have also been behaving irresponsibly. They appear to be interested in selling the pesticides produced at home or imported from abroad. The pesticide marketing companies do ensure printed labels on the pesticide bottles that contain instructions about doses and warnings on health hazards. But they tend to forget the fact that most farmers in this country are illiterate or do not bother much about reading what the labels say.
The agricultural extension officials at the field level are supposed to make the farmers aware of the use of pesticides in correct doses and dangers of handling the same without wearing protective gears. But they hardly perform that duty. That is why farmers overuse pesticides and apply the same without any sort of protective clothes or hand gloves.
There is no proof, however, that the abnormal use of pesticides is linked to the rise in the number of patients afflicted with serious diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and other systemic ailments.
Yet it needs to be examined whether the 'Green Revolution' launched in the mid sixties through the use of fertilisers, pesticides and high-yielding variety (HYV) of seeds with support from the United States in particular is exacting a cost, in terms of human sufferings, notwithstanding a threefold rise in food production over the past four and a half decades.
The answer to an identical question is also being sought in the frontier state of Punjab, the breadbasket of India. The state has already drawn the global attention because of the 'Cancer Train' that routinely enters the railway platform of small town called Bathinda at about 9.30 pm local time and leaves with, among others, on an average 60 cancer patients for the town of Bikaner in Punjab. The train has a compartment exclusively for the cancer patients.
Researchers at the Punjab School of Public Health reportedly found significant rise in the number of cancer patients in rural areas where the use of pesticide was extensive. But there are other factors that might also be responsible for the unwanted development. However, suspicion centering unbridled pesticide use is growing.
The irony is that we cannot pullout from so-called modern farming for practical reasons. Everybody would love to consume everything local or traditional since they are tasty and refreshing. But going back to the production of local variety rice alone would invariably keep half the population starved. In the case of other crops and vegetables, the country would be dependent on increased imports.
So, the policymakers need to give more emphasis on the balanced use of fertilisers and safe application of pesticides in crop fields. Greater awareness among farmers can only be created by educating them about the safe use of chemicals on all types of crops and vegetables.