Deadly pesticides for profit

April 22, 2019

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GLOBALLY, policymakers and researchers are trying to find solutions that can help farmers move away from, or at least cut, the use of chemicals — harmful for human and animal health, the environment and biodiversity — to a sustainable level without affecting their livelihoods and ability to feed a growing population.

Although the elimination or reduction of the use of fertilisers, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals on major and minor crops is just one of the several sustainability goals, it remains on top of the priority list of most countries across the world.

However, in Pakistan, we continue to try to swim against the global current at the cost of human health, water contamination, soil erosion, decreasing soil fertility and yields.

The indiscriminate and unbalanced application of chemicals has been on the increase as farmers, particularly small landholders, continue to try to cope with rising insect and disease attacks on their crops.

Although the elimination or reduction of the use of synthetic chemicals remains on top of the priority list of most countries across the world, in Pakistan we continue to try to swim against the global current

Ironically, the abuse of chemicals has increased the requirement for fertilisers to improve soil fertility and made insects more resistant to the pesticides.

Farmers from across Punjab, for example, say their use of soil nutrients is increasing by the season to maintain their productivity levels. Similarly, they are forced to spray their crops four to five times, instead of the two to three times required a few years back, to fight insect attacks and plant diseases.

“Many of the problems our farmers are facing today are the result of an imbalanced use of fertilisers and excessive spray of pesticides,” Dr Sagheer Ahmed, the director of the Cotton Research Institute (CRI), Multan, tells Dawn.

“Fertilisers should be used only after a lab analysis of the soil, and insecticides must not be sprayed on crops unless the pest or disease attack crosses the minimum threshold.

“But our farmers do not care about these requirements and resort to an indiscriminate use of chemicals to ‘protect’ their crops, mainly because a vast majority of them are smallholders and cannot afford losses,” he says.

Dr Sagheer Ahmed argues that the entire agriculture land in Punjab is massively deficient in three major nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and Potassium.

‘Our farmers do not care about safety requirements and resort to an indiscriminate use of chemicals to ‘protect’ their crops, mainly because a vast majority of them are smallholders and cannot afford losses’

“Since chemicals containing phosphorus and potassium are expensive, the growers choose to use just urea — and that too in excessive quantities. Likewise, the farmers start spraying the crop on the first hint of disease or insect attack.

“Our farmers lack awareness, education and cash, and the crop protection companies take advantage of them and misguide them to meet their sale targets,” the director concludes.

According to Punjab agriculture department officials, less than a fifth of the farmers across the province have ever received basic training on how to handle and use pesticides.

“Most pesticides used to protect crops are hazardous or moderately hazardous to human and animal health and the environment. Over-reliance on pesticides for better yields, and lack of knowledge to properly handle their use, mean high risk of pesticide exposure and pesticide residues on crops, especially on vegetables and fruit,” a senior official, who refused to speak on record, insists.

Dr Javed Ahmed, the director of the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute, thinks the solution to sustainable agriculture lies in adopting Integrated Pest Management systems shifting towards new seed technology with inbuilt pest resistance.

“The world is moving away from chemical sprays on crops and fertilisers, and new seeds with higher resistance to pest and disease attacks, water scarcity and drought conditions are being developed. We need to bring in such new seed varieties that will reduce the need for chemical sprays,” he says.

Integrated pest management, according to experts, means the use of plant protection products and other forms of intervention at levels that are economically and ecologically justified. They minimise the risk to human health and the environment.

But many farmers disagree. “The concept of integrated pest management as a crop protection system has failed to deliver its promise. Take the example of Bt cotton. The use of Bt cotton has increased the frequency of pesticide sprays in every country it is being grown in, including India,” asserts a progressive farmer from Bahawalnagar, Ijaz Ahmed Rao.

“Now the farmers are turning back to the crop rotation method — the practice of growing a series of different types of crops in the same field so that the soil is not used for only one set of nutrients and build-up of pests is mitigated. This is to control pests, protect soil fertility, obtain higher yields and minimise damage to human and animal life and the environment. We must return to nature for sustainable agricultural practices,” he concludes.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 22nd, 2019