1 - 7 August 2014 #718

Toxic tarkari

Despite awareness and crackdown, pesticide-laced vegetables continue to poison
Sonia Awale

Suddenly the danger of pesticides is all over the mainstream media, and the Nepali public has a new awareness about poisonous vegetables. While urban consumers are faced with uncertainty about what is safe to eat, farmers have been affected by falling demand for produce.

The Ministry of Agriculture blacklisted vegetables from districts in the Tarai and areas surrounding Kathmandu this month after tests found unsafe levels of pesticide residue. But it hasn’t been able to stop their sale and buyers have been left with no alternative.

Under the personal initiative of Chief Secretary Lilamani Poudel, the government set up a Rapid Pesticide Residue Analysis Laboratory at the Kalimati market, and found 15 per cent of the produce analysed had pesticide levels unfit for human consumption. In fact, a recent survey showed the most-used pesticides in Nepal are on the banned list.

Pramod Koirala of the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control says there is no option but to plug the legal loopholes that permit continued sale of banned agro-chemicals and tainted vegetables.

The Kalimati lab found 15 per cent of all vegetables recently tested to be contaminated. Some of the potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum and salads have pesticide residue up to three times higher than levels deemed safe by the WHO.

Nepal’s per capita pesticide consumption is one of the lowest in the world, and most subsistence farmers in rural Nepal don’t use pesticides. But commercial farmers supplying produce to city markets often overdose their crop and do not comply with the waiting period requirements before harvesting. The result is that consumers are not safe, and farmers are now faced with falling prices as demand drops, a survey of markets in Patan and Kalimati this week showed.

Dinesh Babu Tiwari, a Senior Plant Protection Officer at the lab, says there are two types of farmers: “Those who aren’t aware about pesticides and those who use pesticides knowingly. The second type must be punished.”

Farmers in Tikathali of Lalitpur district argue they have to use pesticides for commercial farming as an insurance against crop failure. Ratna Prajapati, 35, says the negative publicity in the media about pesticides has scared off consumers. “There has been a big drop in sales,” he told us, gesturing at his okra field ripe for picking, “we are now using milder pesticides.”

Saraswati Basnet, 52, also grows vegetables commercially and says one testing lab will not curb pesticide misuse. “You may stop it in Kalimati, but there are many smaller markets where vegetables with pesticides can be sold,” she said.

Organic farmer Sojan Karmacharya, however, hasn’t suffered a drop in sales. “Eighty per cent of  crops in Nepal are still chemical free,” he says, “and in the city there are markets for organic produce, so consumers have a choice if the government is serious about it.”

Meanwhile, early on Monday morning at Kalimati, the wholesalers were doing brisk business despite the drop in demand. “They don’t want insects, they don’t want pesticides, what do they want?” asked one angry shopkeeper. “They should be punishing the farmers, not us. Everything has pesticides, it is just a matter of more or less.”

The lab technicians told the shopkeepers to dispose of the vegetables that failed the lab test, but they seldom stay behind to check. A scuffle broke out this week between officials and vendors after the government tried to destroy tainted vegetables in Kalimati.

Over at the vegetable market at Mangalbazar, shoppers seemed resigned to their fate. “I know I shouldn’t be buying these cucumbers, but what else will I eat,” asked Gita Gangol, a college teacher, “but just to be safe, I am starting my own kitchen garden.”

Twenty-two-year-old Srijana Regmi says she hasn’t stopped buying greens. “I have to eat after all,” she shrugs. “We can’t tell if these have pesticides or not, so how do I decide? Even if the government says something is pesticide free, I  won’t believe them.”

Read also:

Lethal veggies, Sonia Awale

You are what you eat, Katy Elliot

Is there poison in your neighbourhood?, Alok Tumbahangphe