Pesticides of death

  • 29/11/1994

SINCE Rachel Carson's Silent Spring , written in 1962, tried to wake the world to the damage pesticides can do both to human health and the environment, the limitations of chemical pesticides have been well documented. Five million people we poisoned by pesticides, of which some 40,000 die each year. It is estimated that over 500 crop pests are now resistant to pesticides. But despite this growing body of evidence, some $27 billion continues to be spent on pesticides every year, thanks to indifferent governments and armtwisting by transnational corporations (TNCs). When the Philippine government tried to ban 3 pesticides in 1993, pesticide and pharmaceutical manufacturing TNC Hoechst threatened the president that it would withdraw its investments from the country.

But now falling crop yields and increased pest outbreaks, especially in paddy fields, have forced several Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, to introduce alternative pest control strategies, collectively known as "integrated pest management" (IPM), to boost agricultural production. Conscious of the adverse health impacts of pesticides on their environment and on the health of their people, such strategies are also being wed in the developed world. In North America, integrated pest management has been successfully used for cotton, vegetables, almonds, citrus fruits and grapes.

In Indonesia, where in 1986 the government implemented a national integrated pest management policy, banning the use of insecticides in paddy except in exceptional circumstances, farmers found that rice production increased by 12 per cent. The area infested with the brown planthopper, the primary rice pest in the region, declined from 200,000 hectares in 1986 to 15,000 hectares in 1990.

In India, too, pest resistance to insecticides is becoming a familiar story. The most notorious is the American ballroom -a pest on cotton capable of resisting the deadliest of chemicals. In the'80s, several farmers in Andhra Pradesh committed suicide when they found that the creature devastated their cotton fields, despite the copious application of chemicals. However, pesticide use in this country continues to increase at an alarming rate of 2 to 5 per cent per annum.

Policymakers in India will soon have no option but to look for pesticide alternatives to control crop loss. However any switch to ecofriendly alternatives will require integrated action on several fronts.

IPM strategies as experiences in other parts of the world reveal are only effective when farmers cooperate with each other at the farm level. Group decisions are essential in selecting the type of crop and the time of sowing the pesticides to be used and monitoring pest and predator populations.

However in a country with 90 million farm holdings such a strategy would require a massive effort to create a fraternal climate in which farmers can cooperate with each other. This can only be done by recognising the village as a cultural and ecological unit, and not just as an administrative one. And, clearly enough, the decision to implement such strategies will have to be made by the members of the community. This is all the more essential because these strategies require constant innovation with the development of new seeds once insects break down plant resistance.

The farmers are the ultimate judges of the efficacy of a technique, but in today's scheme of things, their judgement is considered of least importance. What is required is that innovators follow the farmers' choices and needs instead of using them as mere subjects of their experiments, dictated by international agencies who have suddenly woken up to the world's environment crisis. International agencies are now out to push this technology, driven by a Western demand for green foods produced at low labour cost.

Agricultural extension agencies in this country, following obsolete development models, have shown an inability to capitalise on the knowledge that farmers already have. Given the enormous faith that these agencies have in halfbaked concepts of farming borrowed from other climes, their ability to transfer technologies that demand a whole new approach to farming will obviously be suspect.

The transition from an inorganic pest regime to an integrated pest regime usually takes 4 to 5 years, during which time crops become susceptible to pest attacks. Protection against the real or perceived risks of crop failure would be essential for farmers adopting such strategies. This would require huge amounts of capital, already scarce in a country like India, or would demand a greater emphasis on cooperation so that farmers protect one another against such risks.

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