Pesticides use on vegetables continues but more is being used to fight climate change impactNepal is among countries using least amounts of pesticides but impact on health is among the highest in the world since farmers do not follow norms, officials and experts say.
Vegetables laced with high amounts of pesticide residues continue to be supplied to Kathmandu Valley despite alarm bells of its threat to public health being raised in the past.
This week the Central Agriculture Laboratory said it found a high level of organophosphate compounds in samples of cauliflower and bottle gourd produced in Dhading. The samples had been collected from Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Market in mid-December last year.
According to officials, most of the vegetables sold in Kathmandu Valley are grown using organophosphate. The fresh vegetables supplied in the market are toxic, as farmers don’t follow the universal norm that “no spraying should be done a week before harvest”.
Prakash Ghimire, a plant protection officer at the government laboratory, said that cauliflower produced in Dhading was found to have pesticide residues of the organophosphate group exceeding 45 percent of the permissible limit.
“The vegetable was found to be not consumable and was dumped,” said Ghimire.
All vegetables that come from Dhading, however, do not pass through the Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Market.
Bottle gourd supplied from Dhading was found to have pesticides of the same group exceeding the permissible limit by 35 percent, which means it can be consumed only after storing for two days.
Organophosphate compounds are a group of insecticides that were first discovered in 1938 by a group of German chemists. Organophosphates were introduced as nerve poisons or chemical warfare agents during World War II, and later they were developed into less potent chemicals. These chemicals are widely used in Nepal for pest control on crops.
According to health experts, the consumption of fruits and vegetables laced with organophosphate compounds may also affect pregnant women and harm the foetus.
“This brings to light the failure of the state, as virtually no action has been taken to control the menace,” said Jyoti Baniya, president of Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights.
Doctors say high levels of pesticides in fruits and vegetables cause nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, dizziness and anxiety. Long-term consumption of fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticides can lead to kidney failure, lung disease and mental health problems, and can even cause cancer.
It is not just vegetables grown in the country that are found to have high levels of pesticides but also those imported from India. But not all pesticides can be detected in the labs at customs points, according to consumer rights activists.
“As Nepal only screens for pesticides of carbamate and organophosphate groups in customs labs, Indian traders export vegetables and fruits that use other types of banned harmful pesticides which the labs here cannot detect,” Baniya told the Post.
In 2019, pesticide residue tests on imported farm produce had even caused some diplomatic confusion between Nepal and India. India had taken issue with the Nepal government’s decision to conduct pesticide residue tests on fruits and vegetables imported from India.
Rather than take steps to protect health, the government has made penalties for perpetrators of risking public health more lenient.
The government amended the Pesticide Management Act in 2019 but made it weaker than the previous Act.
The earlier law had a provision of three years imprisonment and fines but that has now been reduced to a year’s imprisonment, according to Baniya.
According to Baniya, a study conducted by Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights with the support of the United Nations World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation in seven districts in 2011 found that in many cases farmers spraying chemicals were exposed to incurable diseases like cancer.
“After farmers, consumers who eat the food laced with harmful chemicals are also at a high risk,” he said.
The World Health Organisation says that food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases—ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.
An estimated 600 million—almost 1 in 11 people in the world—fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years.
It says that $110 billion is lost each year in productivity and medical expenses resulting from unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries.
Presence of pesticides in fruits and vegetables has been a major cause for concern.
For example, according to consumer rights activists, farmers are still known to spray methyl parathion, a banned organophosphate insecticide, on cauliflower to give it an extra white appearance.
Similarly, vegetables like lady’s finger are dipped in copper sulphate to make them look greener.
According to Ghimire of the government laboratory, most of the pesticides under the organophosphate group have been banned but as the pesticide is easily available at any agro vet across the country due to the open border with India, many farmers use them to protect their crops despite knowledge that it poses serious health hazards.
And the worse may be yet to come.
Climate change will have more impact on agro-biodiversity, according to Arun Prakash Bhatta, an under-secretary at the Climate Change Management Division of the Ministry of Forest and Environment.
“Climate change and heat stress are already killing the bee population and equally affecting other animals. Agriculture will be highly affected,” he said. “There will be new diseases and pests emerging.”
Nepal is the fourth most vulnerable country to climate change in the world and its adverse effects are already visible in various sectors across the country.
Ram Krishna Subedi, information officer at Plant Quarantine and Pesticide Management Centre, said that with a change in climate, new pests have been increasing and damaging the crops.
“Due to a sudden change in climate, new pests have emerged and they are more powerful. It’s a worrying sign,” Subedi said. “The use of pesticide is likely to increase, as farmers will choose to spray more pesticides to protect their crops.”
A team from the Central Agriculture Laboratory visited Dhading after finding high residues of pesticides in vegetables produced in the district.
“Farmers said that they have been using more pesticide after not getting value for their crops,” said Ghimire. ‘They said crops did not remain fresh and black marks appeared in vegetables during their transportation, as there has been an increased attack of pests this winter.”
This could be because of the higher temperatures this winter.
“This year as winter has become slightly hotter, the pests problem has increased in the agriculture sector,” Ghimire said.
An argument that Subedi concurs with.
“The temperature plays a great role in multiplying pest attacks, with faster mutation and more damage to the crops,” said Subedi.
In Dhading, officials also found that farmers were frequently violating norms that no spraying should be done a week before harvest.
According to Subedi, the country imported 63,367 tonnes of active ingredients of pesticides in the fiscal year 2019-20 and the import has been increasing by 15 percent annually with an increase in commercial farming and also as an impact of climate change.
Most of these pesticides—85 percent—were used on vegetables.
“With the emergence of new insects, farmers are using strong pesticides and mixing different pesticides, as they falsely believe that more chemicals means more efficacy in killing pests,” said Subedi. “But that does not impact crops but affects human health.”
Despite the growing use of pesticides, the government’s efforts to control their use have not increased in the same proportion.
“Our labs across the country only test two types of pesticide—carbamate and organophosphate, but many new generation pesticides are also being used which cannot be detected by the equipment in our labs,” Subedi said. “Carbamate has already been banned in Nepal and many groups of organophosphate too.”
However, the budget to upgrade the existing labs has not yet been allocated, said an official at the Agriculture Ministry.
“Upgrading the labs requires resources and trained manpower, but in the lack of budget, it is not happening,” the official told the Post requesting anonymity.
The most striking thing is that Nepal is among the countries using the least amount of pesticides, but the impact on health of these pesticides is among the highest in the world, according to plant protection officers.
Pesticides are primarily applied to produce off-season vegetables, which are expensive but are more prone to pest attacks. But as most Nepali farmers do not follow instructions before applying pesticides, their impact on the health of consumers can be much higher than in other countries where more pesticides are used, but under strict guidelines.
In most countries, growers observe a waiting period of at least two weeks, depending on the chemical, before harvesting. In Nepal, farmers tend to harvest within four to five days, which leaves lingering traces of pesticides on produce, as they are in a hurry to sell their produce, said Ghimire.
Shreeram Ghimire, spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, said that the ministry has been educating farmers regarding the use of pesticide and inspecting in the fields.
“Once the vegetables and fruits produced locally are regulated in the field properly, it does not require a second level test in the lab,” the spokesman claimed.
But with such an attitude of officials and the government not having the wherewithal to control the use of pesticides, consumers need to be careful, say consumer rights activists.
“The government is not even capable of spreading awareness, as pesticide residues can be eliminated through a proper handling period by farmers,” said Baniya, the consumer rights activist. “As for consumers, immersing vegetables and fruits in salt water or in vinegar for 15-20 minutes can extract the pesticide. ”
A helpless sounding Ghimire of the Central Agriculture Laboratory has similar advice for consumers.
“Consumers should be aware as a thorough wash will help to get rid of much of the toxins in vegetables,” said Ghimire.