Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Endosulfan divides scientists, TN farmers

Last week, 16 plantation workers in Valparai estates fell unconscious after they allegedly inhaled large doses of pesticide claimed to be endosulfan. A few days later, a similar incident was reported in Udumalpet.

While farmers’ associations and environmental activists across the state have staged protests on a regular basis demanding a total ban on endosulfan in the state, its use continues to be rampant despite the interim ban on the pesticide and the state government is yet to arrive at a decision on its fate.

Scientists at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) claim that there is no scientific evidence to relate endosulfan usage with birth deformities or any major health hazards.

“Farmers in TN have used endosulfan for the last 50 years. We have been recommending the pesticide for a variety of crops including cotton, rice, maize, wheat and pulses until recently,” says Dr E.I. Jonathan, director of the Centre for Plant Protection Studies, at TNAU.

He points out that endosulfan is like any pesticide and can cause damage only when it is consumed directly or when a person is exposed to a large dosage.

“We have thoroughly studied the product and have found very minimal residue levels in the samples,” Dr Jonathan says. “We have tested 2,258 samples over the last three years and only three out of them contained endosulfan residues which were below the maximum residue limit (MRL) prescribed in the Preventive Food Adulteration Act (PFA). But, nobody is ready to believe us,” he adds.

However, environmental activists and even members of the Federation of TN Agriculturists’ Association dismiss their claims and seek a ban.

“If the pesticide is so harmless, why has it been banned in so many countries across the world?” asks C. Nallasami, secretary of the federation. He says that the agriculture department and the state have not been transparent in publishing the facts on endosulfan.

The problem, according to TNAU scientists, is the indiscriminate use of any pesticide. “While we are certain that endosulfan cannot cause birth deformities as being hyped about, it can certainly cause health problems if used inappropriately just as any other pesticide. The sad part is the government has not put a system in place to check the usage of pesticides by farmers,” TNAU scientists say.

They lament that certain farmers go by the advice of the uninformed sources and indulge in overdose of pesticides that could harm public health.

“Instead of demanding a blanket ban on an individual pesticide, we should look at the larger issue of monitoring the usage of pesticides as it concerns public health,” a senior scientist at TNAU says.
“Even when I go to shop vegetables, I pick and choose the ones that have worms in it. If a worm can survive the onslaught of pesticides, then I will too,” he adds.

Doctors vs scientists

*”There is no doubt that endosulfan is bad for the health of humans, as well as the environment,” says Dr S. Elango, president of the Indian Public Health Association.
*Scientists at TNAU claim that there is no scientific evidence to relate endosulfan usage with birth deformities or any major health hazards.

Agri dept failed to give info, complain farmers

Farmers across the state lament that the state agriculture department has completely ignored them for the last several years.

They claim that they are not taken into confidence in any matter concerning agriculture. With around 60 per cent of the population in TN still depending on agriculture, the farmers associations claim that the agriculture department’s indifference is the root cause of all their woes.

“Farmers, farm workers and village artisans comprise more than half of the state’s population. But, we do not get any communiqué from the department. Even for the purchase of pesticides, seeds and fertilizers, we seek the help of private agencies as the government officials seldom interact with us,” says C. Nallasami, secretary of the Federation of TN Agriculturists’ Association (FTNAA).

FTNAA, which is an umbrella association of various farmers’ groups, claims that even in the recent controversy over endosulfan, they were not consulted by the government. “Whatever information we have gathered on the pesticide is through media. No government official has bothered to enlighten us on it,”
FTNAA members told this newspaper. They point out that while the TNAU claims to be researching on various pesticides and fertilizers, the information rarely reached them.

“One of the main reasons for farmers to misuse pesticides and fertilizers is because there is no exchange of communication between us and the scientists. Our generation of farmers is educated and we understand the possible health hazards to people. But, we are never kept informed,” says a grape farmer near here. “This is the main reason why banned pesticides are still used in this area while the TNAU does not recommend endosulfan for the crop,” he adds.

State agriculture department officials claim that they were doing their best to reach out to farmers. “Every district has agricultural officers who are the point of contact for the farmers. Besides, we have also introduced toll free numbers and various information kiosks for farmers to access information,” said an official of the agriculture department.

“But, it is impossible to reach every individual farmer. They too have to be proactive and reach out to us,” he said.

Endosulfan facts
*It is a non systemic insecticide (used only on the external surface).
*Belongs to organochorine group of pesticides under cyclodiene subgroup.
*Has a clearly defined toxicological profile verified by toxicological scientists.
*Does not accumulate in body and excreted within 48 hours.
*WHO considers Endosulfan to be of low or moderate toxicity.

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