Subtle poisonModern farming techniques may have increased yield, but use of pesticides have brought farmers health problems
A recent report of the Nepal National Cancer Registry Program revealed that about 37 percent of the total cancer patients undergoing treatment for the past nine years were occupationally related to farming.
It is obvious that further investigation is required to establish correlation between cancer and current farming practices. While the causes of cancer in these patients are still unknown, various research has pointed towards a positive relationship between the usage of pesticides and the high incidence of cancer among farmers. For example, farmers in Malwa, Punjab, which has also been known as the ‘cancer belt of India’, have been using excessive pesticides and chemical fertilisers in an unregulated environment. Studies conducted in South Asia have also highlighted a sharp increase in many other pesticide-related diseases, such as mental retardation and reproductive disorders.
Pesticide residue has been making its way into the human body through diet. Unlike in developed countries, pesticide residue in fruits, vegetables and other foods for sale in markets is hardly monitored in Nepal. Consumption of food items which are not deemed to be safe entails an enormous risk to human health. It is high time we educate our children about what is going on in and around our food system. Equally important is to let them understand the current trend of degradation and depletion of land and natural resources, including the contamination of groundwater. Correction of this deteriorating trend will require the efforts of generations to come.
A study which took into account the cancer cases with specific reference to gender in Nepal between 2010 and 2013 found that the disease has been on the rise, especially for women. The study found that of the total cancer patients, 55 percent were female and 45 percent male. It noted that bronchus and lung cancer was the most common cancer in men, while cervical uteri cancer was the most prevalent in women. The second most common organ diagnosed with cancer in women was breast and that in men was stomach. As per one estimate, about 30,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year in the country. Though we do not have a comprehensive study on causes of cancer, medical research indicates that 90 percent of cancers are prompted by environmental factors.
The sins of the father
As a researcher I have had several opportunities to interact with farmers. In my interactions, I always got the feeling that farmers, not unlike researchers, have always been on a learning curve. Farmers these days are exhausted dealing with extreme weather conditions, new farming methods and high yield varieties that require enormous amounts of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and groundwater. Farmers consider the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers as a quick and easy solution to increase productivity.
Various farmers I interacted with in South and Southeast Asia think that they are bearing the burden of the success of Green Revolution of the 70’s, when they switched from their conventional farming methods to high yielding seeds and fertilisers together with the use of harmful pesticides.
I noted that common Nepali people have started realising the fact that cancer is on the rise in their neighbourhood. Thanks to the media, stories of cancer have been popping up every now and then. This level of awareness could be a trigger to shun hormone-injected chicken drumsticks and pesticides-loaded cauliflowers at the dining table. Perhaps, some sort of subsidy or support can be extended to people to facilitate farming of pesticide-free vegetables and crops.
Burden on the health system
The government has lately been providing treatment services to patients suffering from certain diseases like cancer, renal failure, Alzheimer’s, spinal injury and coronary ailment, where each of these patients gets free treatment worth $1,000 if they belong to a poor family. Also, recently, the outgoing cabinet hastily took a decision of providing $50 as a monthly social welfare allowance to cancer patients.
While this kind of support may help temporarily, the government should do proper homework to come up with far-reaching initiatives towards preventing such deadly diseases. That homework shall enable the government to allocate adequate resources to Nepal’s needy health system.
The current allocation is less than 10 percent of the government budget and the infrastructure available to deal with cancer remains inadequate. Equally important is to backup the National Health Education, Information, and Communication Centre, which is the government entity responsible for prevention strategies and public health communication.
Perhaps, the real solution to this growing crisis requires a change in current farming practices and a shift in focus towards promoting conventional organic farming.
- Upadhyay writes on natural resource management and sustainable development issues