Storage, processing and sale of food have been an issue. Its worthiness or safety for human consumption in the wake of increasing use of pesticides and insecticides too are even more important. Though consumers look to vendors for answers amid disease and deaths caused by this, the safety, or the lack of it, is in the hands of farmers who can be reached, grouped and trained to feel empowered and also to ward off the risk, writes Sanjay Dave
The other day, I happened to be home a bit early in the evening and was chatting with my wife over a cup of tea, when she said, “You know several food retail chains will also sell fresh fruits and vegetables. We can buy these from there when we go for our weekly grocery shopping.”
“But why from them? All these years, we have been buying fresh from the street vendors or from the nearby weekly markets. Why should we go all the way to a distant place and then store vegetables for the whole week?”, I retorted.
“Because they maintain quality”, she said.
“But, you will still get the same stuff from these retailers that you buy from the street vendors next door or from the weekly markets; after all, the farmers are the same”, I responded.
I could understand what she was trying to say, but I continued to extend the conversation to assess consumer behaviour.
She replied, “You don’t understand, the retailers have a name for quality and safety of food, and maintain high standards. They might be selecting their farmers. If necessary, they will import safe produce. At least, we will not get pesticides in our food.”
I wasn't quite sure of what she was saying. Most retailers buy from traders and on many occasions they do not even know which farmer produced the fruit or vegetable they are selling. How many retailers, leave alone the roadside vendors, are checking the produce for pesticide residues, is doubtful. Even these small vendors have no idea of the adverse health effects of pesticide residues. On many occasions, even sweetening injections are, reportedly, inserted in the fruits or colours smeared on the vegetables. Thinking from the angle of farmers, it is important for them to make sure that the fruit or vegetable produced in their farm does not get damaged due to pests and so they sell the produce as early as possible without thinking of the residual effect. In many areas, the farmers lease out their farm to traders and take advance money for the crop season; resultantly, the farmers or the traders spray pesticides and insecticides as guided by the salesmen of pesticide manufacturers. On most occasions, they do not know nor are they told that there is a pre-harvest time gap prescribed for each pesticide. Most farmers have also not received the required training or knowledge in this respect.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has framed several standards for quality and safety. The Maximum Residue Limits for pesticides in fruits and vegetables are also being established. But what is our expectation from these food laws? Are we in a position to ensure that setting standards will provide safe food to all of us? Have we made any assessment about the need and practices required to be followed to ensure compliance, who will give this training to them, and what is the technical manpower required to meet and monitor the intended objectives? FSSAI's mandate under the Act does not extend to the farm level. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that if we want safe fruits and vegetables and processed food products, safety will have to begin from the farm. Then, are we aware of the growing disease burden on our Government and the tax payer due to lack of compliance with food safety requirements? Is it not appropriate to ensure prevention of diseases than trying to cure them. Now that there are a growing number of consumers ready to pay an extra buck for safer food, why can't we prepare our farmers with the practices they need to follow to ensure that the pesticide residues are within limits? These were some of the questions that traversed through my mind while I was looking for answers to the points raised by my wife.
Thus, in order that farmers in India are able to market safe produce, it is important to promote the use ‘best practices’, possibly in a certifiable form among the farmers. It would be prudent to direct resources in this direction. Farmers need to be encouraged to implement Integrated Pest Management by using biopesticides. It is also important that the manufacturers of pesticides and insecticides ensure that their products are appropriately registered with the Ministry of Agriculture and that they abide by a Code of Conduct in selling their products to the farmers. Proper and complete labeling of pre-harvest diffusion period of pesticides in a legible form should, essentially, be followed by all engaged in pesticide business. This is in the interest of farmers, environment and the consumers. There should also be an effective mechanism to monitor adulteration with banned pesticides.
Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and registration of pesticides is practiced by several countries to ensure availability of safe fruits and vegetables to the consumers. The retail chains insist on compliance through third party verification. Even in India, the exporters and their constituent farmers implement GAP and comply with the importers' requirements. Of course, there is a cost to it. In spite of the best efforts by the exporters, safeguard measures were taken by several countries against our okra (bhindi), curry leaves, green chilly, table grapes, pomegranate, groundnuts, etc.
All said and done, if safety can be ensured for exports, why not for our own consumers? What should the farmer do if the lady of house would decide to buy from a store that guarantees safe food even if it means a little extra price? The answer is implementation of GAP and appropriate registration of all pesticides in the market. While the national food laws intend to promise availability of safe food, implementation of appropriate practices at the farm level will continue to remain the ‘X’ factor to make a difference. Else, our consumers will continue to buy unsafe fruits and vegetables and fall sick of unknown diseases. If the retailers implement GAP and are able track the source of produce and get their practices certified, they should be able to display it on the packages by stating that the produce is GAP certified. This will create positive ripples among the consumers with the result that our consumers will benefit. The consumers will start demanding safe and GAP certified produce. At the same time, our farmers will also benefit. A win-win...!!
So, how do we go through the process of enabling the farmers meet the challenges before him? He is only too eager to sell safe produce and take pride in doing so. How can we empower even the smallest farmer to stand up and say, “Yes, I can do it”? Can we bring about that change for his sake and for the sake of our consumers? Since most of the farmers in the country are small and marginal players, the ideal step forward would be to encourage farmers to form groups and implement an Internal Control System so that the cost gets divided and also generates marketable volumes. This should be followed by a third party certification process. The development of GAP certified farms would need to be taken up on a project mode with the help of State Governments and the State agricultural universities/national research centers under ICAR. This work requires a cluster development approach by setting up model GAP compliant farms with train-the-trainer initiatives. Thereafter, all we need to collectively do is to motivate the farmer and educate the consumer to demand GAP certified produce.
Implementation of this programme would increase awareness among the farmers as well as the consumers about the need for consumption of good quality and safe produce. This would facilitate compliance with better standards for our citizens. It would meet the objectives of the Government to provide safe food to the consumers. As a result, it would lead to import of produce of comparable quality and safety.
Implementation of GAP would give a boost to contract farming, whereby, processors would have an added advantage both in the domestic and international market in terms of better quality produce for processing. The programme would also contribute to improvement in the environment and soil fertility. Needless to add, this would also lead to employment generation.
The short point is to make it possible for even the smallest farmer and retailer of fresh and processed food in our country sell safe food to the consumers. Let us empower them to take pride in their business of little means!
Together, we can make a difference!! – The writer is former Chairman of Codex Alimentarius Commission (a FAO/WHO body of the United Nations) and Advisor, FSSAI