Monocrotophos pesticide: India
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Monocrotophos pesticide: India
The poison pill in India's search for cheap food
Reuters | Jul 28, 2013
Decision not to ban monocrotophos
Nearly a decade ago, the government ruled out a ban on the production and use of monocrotophos, the highly toxic pesticide that killed 23 children this month in a Bihar village school providing free lunches under the government-sponsored mid-day meal programme.
Despite being labelled highly hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a panel of government experts was persuaded by manufacturers that monocrotophos was cheaper than alternatives and more effective in controlling pests that decimate crop output.
Banned in rich nations, China and Pakistan
India, which has more hungry mouths to feed than any other country in the world, continues to use monocrotophos and other highly toxic pesticides that rich and poor nations alike, including China, are banning on health grounds. Monocrotophos is banned by many countries, including the United States, the European Union nations, China, and, among India's neighbours, Pakistan. Sri Lanka only allows monocrotophos use for coconut cultivation.
Although the government argues the benefits of strong pesticides outweigh the hazards if properly managed, the school food poisoning tragedy underlined criticism such controls are virtually ignored on the ground.
2004 meeting of the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee
According to the minutes, the 2004 meeting conducted by the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee, the Indian government body that regulates pesticide use, concluded that: "The data submitted by the industry satisfies the concerns raised ... Therefore, there is no need to recommend the ban of this product."
Government scientists continue to defend the pesticide, and insist the decision to not ban it remains good.
Just weeks before the school tragedy in Bihar, the government advised farmers via text message to use monocrotophos to kill borer pests in mandarin fruits and rice, records on the agricultural meteorology division's web site show.
"It is cost effective and it is known for its efficacy ... some even call it a benevolent pesticide," said T. P. Rajendran, assistant director general for plant protection at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
"I can say that pesticides currently permitted in the country are safe provided they are used as per specifications and guidelines. We have exhaustive and detailed guidelines. They need to be followed."
A senior official directly involved in the decision-making on pesticide use said: "You have got to understand that all pesticides are toxic but they are essential for maintaining or increasing agricultural production.
"Can we afford to lose 15-25 percent of output? One cannot afford to lose such a large percentage of agricultural produce. The answer lies in judicious use."
The official declined to be identified.
India: 76,000 deaths a year from pesticide poisoning
The WHO has cited a 2007 study that about 76,000 people die each year in India from pesticide poisoning. Many of the deaths are suicides made easy by the wide availability of toxic pesticides.
In the school tragedy, police suspect the children's lunch was cooked in oil that was stored in a used container of monocrotophos.
15 pages regulations
The government has issued 15 pages of regulations that need to be followed when handling pesticides - including wearing protective clothing and using a respirator when spraying. Pesticide containers should be broken when empty and not left outside in order to prevent them being re-used.
Banned for use on vegetable crops
But in a nation where a quarter of the 1.2 billion population is illiterate and vast numbers live in far-flung rural districts, implementation is almost impossible. For instance, monocrotophos is banned for use on vegetable crops, but there is no way to ensure the rule is followed.
1,200 milligrams are fatal
According to the WHO, swallowing 1,200 milligrams - less than a teaspoon - of monocrotophos can be fatal to humans. In 2009, it called for India to ban the product because of its extreme toxicity.
"It is imperative to consider banning the use of monocrotophos," it said in a 60-page report. "The perception that monocrotophos is cheap and necessary, have prevented the product from being taken off the market" in India.
WHO officials say the school tragedy reinforces the dangers of the pesticide.
"We would advocate that countries restrict, ban, or phase out...those chemicals for which they can't ensure that all aspects of use are safe," said Lesley Onyon, WHO's South-East Asia regional adviser for chemical safety. "If they can't ensure safety, it's our policy to say that these chemical or pesticides shouldn't be used."
Government officials refuse to address the WHO's findings directly.
"We have to take decisions depending on our need, our priorities, and our requirements. No one knows these things better than us," said the government source.
Nation’s priority: providing more food
For India, providing more food to its people is a national priority. According to the World Bank, nearly 400 million people in the country live on less than $1.25 per day.
Nearly half its children under five are malnourished.
The Bihar school where the children died was participating in the government's midday meal programme, aimed at giving 120 million school pupils a free lunch - both providing nutrition and encouraging education. India is also close to implementing an ambitious plan to provide cheap food to 800 million people.
Central to these efforts will be higher crop yields and managing costs.
According to government officials and manufacturers, monocrotophos is cheap and is also a broad spectrum pesticide that can only be replaced by four or five crop- or pest-specific pesticides. Even similar pesticides are much more expensive.
Costs 80% less than an alternative, Imidacloprid
A 500 ml monocrotophos bottle sold by Godrej Agrovet, a subsidiary of Godrej Industries (GODI.NS), is priced at 225 rupees, while an alternative, Imidacloprid, in a bottle of 500 ml produced by Bayer (BAYGn.DE), costs 1,271 rupees.
Production halted by MNCs
One of the two companies that argued against the ban on monocrotophos in 2004 halted production five years later under pressure from the public in its home country, Denmark.
Cheminova, a unit of Auriga Industries, said it stopped producing monocrotophos in India in 2009 and converted its plant to produce a low-toxic fungicide.
"We decided to phase out monocrotophos because with many alternative products, we could not see any reason to have such a toxic product in a country like India," Lars-Erik Pedersen, vice-president of Auriga Industries, told Reuters in Copenhagen.
"It was a big decision because it is one of the best-selling products in India," he added.
Votaries of monocrotophos
The other manufacturer that made a presentation at the 2004 meeting was United Phosphorus, currently the biggest producer of the pesticide in the country.
Managing director Rajju D. Shroff told Reuters that monocrotophos was "very harmless," and hinted calls for a ban were aimed at helping multinationals sell more costly alternatives.
"Companies want to sell new pesticides. If they have monocrotophos, farmers will not change to new, expensive ones," said Shroff, who attended the meeting as the head of the Crop Care Federation of India, a position he still holds.
Other hazardous pesticides not banned by India
Not most toxic
Historically, India appears reluctant to ban pesticides. Monocrotophos isn't the most toxic pesticide used in the country, according to the WHO's classifications. Phorate, methyl parathion, bromadiolone and phosphamidon, all classified as extremely hazardous, are likewise registered for use.
Ban on endosulfan
And endosulfan - a substance so nasty the United Nations wants it eliminated worldwide - was banned only by a Supreme Court order in 2011. The decision came a few months after the chief minister of Kerala went on a day-long hunger fast to demand the ban.
According to media reports, over 1,000 people were killed and hundreds born deformed because of indiscriminate aerial spraying of endosulfan in Kasargod district in Kerala.
Impact of endosulfan is devastating: SC
SC asks Kerala government to release the entire compensation amount to over 5,000 victims
Describing the effects of Endosulfan as “devastating,” the Supreme Court directed the Kerala government to release the entire compensation to over 5,000 victims, mostly newborns, and their families in three months.
A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar said the State of Kerala can initiate legal proceedings to recover the compensation money from pesticide companies responsible for the production and sale of the highly controversial but cheap agrochemical. The apex court said the State government can also approach the Central government.
Kerala has earmarked over ₹ 180 crore for the payment of compensation to victims, some of whom are terminally ill from the effects of the pesticide which was aerially sprayed on cashew plantations adjoining habitats where the victims are located.
The State has paid cash compensation ranging from ₹ 2 lakh to ₹ 5 lakh to the victims. It said the entire rehabilitation scheme, including a multi-speciality hospital, would cost over ₹ 500 crore.
Kerala counsel G. Prakash said a request to the Centre to spare ₹ 486 crore for the victims fell on deaf ears despite the Kerala High Court decision highlighting the gravity of the health issues caused by the pesticide.
“You are a welfare state ... Why don’t you make a package? Are you not concerned of your obligations as a welfare state? Why don’t you frame uniform norms for compensation? This is devastating,” CJI Khehar observed while perusing the records, pictures and news clips submitted by the petitioner, Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), portraying the health crisis left behind by the pesticide. Disposing of the petition, the court said the State should consider providing life-time medical facilities to Endosulfan victims.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate ban of Endosulfan while disregarding pleas of over 150 private export companies. It had said “any decision affecting human life, or which may put an individual’s life at risk, must call for the most anxious scrutiny.”
‘Social responsibility’ “Every industry should look into corporate social responsibility also, you cannot just look at the money. For us cost is not the only point, even if one child suffers we do not want it on our heads. We hope it is the same for you,” then Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia had told the pesticide manufacturers.
The Bench led by Chief Justice Khehar also issued a contempt notice against a group for its advertisement in an English daily in March 2012, accompanied by a picture of Chief Justice Kapadia (as he was then), claiming that the medical reports and surveys on Endosulfan victims were “fabricated.” .
Production of monocrotophos and demand in India
Both production of monocrotophos and demand in India was higher in 2009/10 than in 2005/06, according to latest available government data. It accounted for about 4 percent of total pesticide use in 2009/10 and 7 percent of production.
Its share in total sales is about 2-3 percent now, according to the Pesticides Manufacturers & Formulators Association, which says it represents the industry on a national basis with over 250 members.
The Centre for Science and Environment, a leading environmental NGO in India, says the state of pesticide control in the country is deplorable and companies have great influence.
"The story on the ground is abysmal, it's very disappointing," said Amit Khurana, programme manager in the CSE's food safety and toxins unit.
"People still do not know how much of pesticide is to be used, which pesticide is to be used for which crop. The biggest influence for a farmer is the sales representative of the company ... so there's this sense of gross mismanagement at that level."
The government has tried to introduce legislation for "more effective regulation of import, manufacture, export, sale, transport, distribution and use of pesticides" but the bill has languished in parliament since 2008.
Bhopal 1984: methyl isocyanate gas tragedy
India is no stranger to the dangers of pesticides. Besides the thousands killed each year, the country suffered the world's worst industrial disaster when lethal methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal in 1984, killing nearly 4,500 people.
But in the fields of rural India, pesticides like monocrotophos continue to be widely used.
Farmers and monocrotophos
"I have been using it for the last 10 years, I have a very good experience," said Gaiyabhu Patil, a 56-year-old farmer who has just finished spraying monocrotophos on his 15-acre cotton crop in Maharashtra. "It is cheap and effective."
Anil Dhole, a pesticide vendor in Koregaon, a district town southeast of Mumbai at the centre of a sugarcane and cotton growing region, said few of his customers took health warnings seriously.
"Many farmers don't take the necessary precautions while applying the pesticide. We do inform them about its toxic nature, but they take it casually," he said "Farmers don't even bother to cover their noses."