Unintended border battle to address food toxinsLet's find a win-win solution that benefits the environment, livestock and people in both countries.
An unintended border battle erupted when Nepal attempted to test pesticide residues in foods imported from India due to public health concerns. This stemmed largely from an increased awareness about pesticide-free or organic foods in Nepal. For instance, Karnali Province has attempted to support organic crop production. Organic food could be a long-term goal in Nepal, but the country does not have the structure to monitor or certify such foods. Nepal’s desire to be an organic-supporting country and minimise toxic food consumption is in line with the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation asking governments to provide quality food to their citizens. The communication from the Indian Embassy to the government of Nepal not to test for pesticides at the border exposes the lack of coordination between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan and the Indian bureaucratic structure.
Food toxins can be either artificial or natural. Artificial toxic pesticides are used by growers to increase food production. In good agricultural practices, limited pesticides can be used on an as-needed basis, but its haphazard use has increased in recent years contributing to several health problems including various forms of malnutrition and even cancer. Integrated pest management is a globally accepted practice that follows alternatives to pest management, and uses pesticides only as the last resort. This technology keeps pesticide residues within the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Although pesticide-free foods are the best option for human health, integrated pest management is the global method of pest management for assured productivity. Bio-pesticides and bio-fertilisers are also being used in Nepal and India to promote organic foods.
Lack of strategies
The most potent natural mould carcinogen known to mankind usually develops in improper, porous or open storage—which usually applies to staple grains and other dry foods. Natural mould toxins are also transferred to meat and milk products through the animals’ feeds. The inability to protect grain during annual flooding in South Asia and elsewhere further adds food toxins, and it is a clear example of the lack of strategies to minimise mould toxins and insect infestation. If these preventive strategies were used soon after harvest, losses from moulds and insects could be avoided.
When Prime Minister Modi first came to power, he formed a commission to find out the reason behind food loss during storage. This commission could not name the main culprit, but suggested other measures to minimise losses. Our group published a scientific paper in early 2018 and pinned water (high relative humidity) as the enemy of dry food products. Drying and packaging dry foods soon after harvest into pesticide-free moisture-proof containers would yield several advantages—including food security for both disaster and non-disaster periods, improved trade ratios, and minimum nutrient loss and insect and toxic mould infestations.
The current rise in awareness and the battle to minimise toxins is a courageous but unprepared move by the government of Nepal. One side can’t be the winner in the food toxin battle where foods move between countries. Both countries have lost the current battle. The Indian media has even asked the reason behind producers producing toxic food. This sentiment further supports the argument made here that nobody is a winner in a food toxin battle between countries with open borders.
Safe food policy
Nepal can make both countries win by embracing a comprehensive safe food policy including quality monitoring for domestic products too. Nepal seems determined to install sensitive toxin monitoring systems at the border (some equipment can quantify up to 412 chemicals) and experts are available to provide technical services.
Although it will take a few years to see effective functioning of such a monitoring system, the public sentiment aroused by the government's move is akin to other food revolutions. However, any effort to politicise this toxin revolution either in Nepal or India would be one more unwarranted and uninformed choice about science. Right now, the government of Nepal has a chance to lead the world in comprehensive toxin mitigation strategies even unseen by its donors. In conclusion, we view the growing awareness in the media in both countries and the commitment of both countries’ governments, farmers, distributors and people at large as a positive development. It will lead to a win-win situation that benefits the environment, livestock and people in both countries.
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