Pesticides, as the name suggests, are chemicals/compounds/substances which reduce or eradicate crop destroying menaces. These menaces range from pests, weeds to various plant diseases. To counter them, there has been a proliferation of pesticides, mainly in the form of Organophosphate (OP) insecticides, carbamates, pyrethoids, herbicides and fungicides. These replaced the ancient form of agriculture, which were mainly organic, with the promise of a greater yield in the shortest possible time. The usage of pesticides remained unregulated and without proper supervision. The adage “Use more to get more”, worked like a charm.
As a result of such rampancy, the fallout of it was gradually evident in the long run. Not only did it affect the soil but also reached the kitchens and dining rooms of society. Man’s greed to feed more has ultimately led to a situation where food, that essential life giver, is now a potential threat. The debate raging in the isles of supermarkets nowadays is the clarion call to return to the basics. Organic. To end the usage of chemicals which increase the yield per hectare but reduce the life span of its intended users.
We are going to have a quick look at the effects these chemicals and pesticides have on us.
Children: Probably the worst affected of the lot. Children have a body system which is still in the stage of development. This includes their digestive and metabolic processes. Contaminated fruits and vegetables reach their organs and except the digested fibres, the rest does not get flushed. As a result, the harmful chemicals remain for a longer period and slowly get absorbed within. A 2007 review found out that “most studies on non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukaemia showed positive associations with pesticide exposure” Stressing on the need to minimise cosmetic usage of pesticides and chemicals, it also suggested strong links between pesticides and its ilk to birth defects, neurological problems, foetal deaths and neurodevelopment disorders.
Adults: The effect on adults is less pronounced initially but worsens as the time progresses. Pesticides with neurotoxins can cause long lasting and mostly permanent nerve damages pertaining to irreversible brain impairment. Reduction in body reflexes and lowering in the thinking capacity are the short term repercussions.
Workers handling pesticides have often complained about dizziness, abdominal pain, headaches and nausea. In China, such a phenomena is frequent. Half a million are affected by pesticide poisoning on an average annually, of which almost 500 deaths are reported. Most of it is attributed to Pyrethrins, an insecticide commonly found in bug killers, which when breathed in causes suffering and eventual death.
According to The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, 9 of the 12 most dangerous and persistent chemicals are pesticides.
Effects of pesticides and chemicals on fruits and vegetable: The ancient form of agriculture was intrinsically linked to divinity and customs. As a result it was believed that purer the process of harvest, the better the yield. Hence, optimum use of manure, crop rotation, siltation and companion planting were some of the methods our ancestors used. As modern technology took over our lives, so did the urge to yield more to feed our burgeoning population. Solution came in the form of fertilizers. It arrived with the promise of a bountiful produce and quick turnaround. And long term usage of it contaminated the soil and killed people’s health. Vast farmlands have turned into poisonous pits and their produce undesirable.
Fruits and vegetables form the majority of our nutrition requirement. They are also highly perishable in nature. The process to increase their shelf lives has also been one of the marvels of modern technology but something we could have done without.
Calcium Carbide () is an artificial ripening agent and illegal in many countries. It is the same chemical which is used for the production of the Oxy acetylene gas to weld iron. Indian farmers have adopted the chemical as their enabler to faster yield. Fruits such as mango, banana, papaya, plums, apples, avocados, melons, peaches, pears, and tomatoes, pineapples, dates have been the beneficiaries of this chemical. CaC2 combines with moisture in the air to produce acetylene which mimics natural ethylene, the same compound produced when fruits ripen.
Worst affected vegetables: Spinach, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflowers, broccoli and mushrooms are some of the worst hit vegetables found on our tables. Celery and lettuce making it to the top two. From ripening agents to weed killers to colouring compounds, these vegetables have seen it all. Absorbed it all. There has been a certain pull back though in regards to Lead and Cadmium contamination. As per FDA studies, samples tested were generally found to be well within normal limits. Infact, a large number of them did not have any Lead and Cadmium contamination at all.
The question is how to reduce pesticide and chemical contamination in our food. The ideal answer is going to be: Go Organic. However the proposition is costly. To make it more viable, there needs to be a more concerted effort by society and the government.
Organic Farming: Organic farming is the process of holistically designing a system which will optimize the productivity of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem. These include steps like crop-rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control.
The Canadian Organic Standards (2006) lays down the following principles of organic production –
o Protect the environment, minimize soil erosion and degradation
o Maintain long-term soil fertility
o Maintain biological diversity within the eco-system
o Recycle materials and resources
o Provide attention to process that promote health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock
o Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing and handling methods
o Rely on renewable resources
Organic farming does have its detractors, who point out the cost factor as a deterrent. However, no cost should be greater than the lives of the people who are the end users of all agricultural produce.
How to prevent consumption of harmful chemicals and pesticides in fruits and vegetables:
1. Washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly. It needs to be kept under running water for a few minutes to let the chemical wash off.
2. Observation is the key to filter the good from the bad. Brightly coloured fruits with uniform colours need to be avoided.
3. Avoid fruits and vegetables with necrosis or dark spots.
4. Avoid buying fruits during their off season. The chances of them getting artificially ripened are higher.
The need of the hour is to come to an arrangement where the usage of harmful chemicals is brought down to its bare minimum. This has to be done at the earliest to prevent further damage to our future generations. Thanks to the illogical use of these carcinogens the ability of the soil to naturally replenish itself has diminished, leading to more fertilizers. Reversing this would require a lot of effort and time and this need to begin now.
Harmful Effects of Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables - Mrs. Usha M Thomas, Associate Professor, Mrs. Aswathy Devi, Associate Professor and Mrs. Munirathna K, Assistant Professor.
Glossary of Pesticides Chemicals – FDA
Harmful Effects of Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables - Wikipedia