Monday, January 27, 2014

How safe (or toxic) is the food we grow and eat in Sri Lanka?

Eva Stone, road-side, vegetable stall, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
I've been concerned for awhile about reports of toxic food production and what is being distributed and sold to consumers in Sri Lanka. My concerns have heightened in recent months as more discussion has emerged around me over the question of "is there something wrong with the foods we're buying?" - at local markets, at the supermarket, among friends and colleagues, and ayurvedic healers. Even over the weekend I happened to catch one of the chefs in Colombo discussing organic food production and "safe" foods on one of the local television channels. 

I've always been a selective shopper when it comes to buying fresh fruit and vegetables at the supermarket and/or at Sunday pola. I've noticed things about local fruits and vegetables that makes me both curious and concerned about what's happening at the agricultural and farming level of the food production process. For example, why do papayas seem to have less seeds? Or, why are papayas starting to taste less like papayas? Why are some fruits starting to get larger in size than we've ever seen them in the past (like they've been injected with growth serum)? Why are there funny growths on avocados? There's plenty more questions where these came from confused

For a number of years now, I've been reading reports in the local newspapers about the use of pesticides, increased use of fertilizers, concerns over genetic modification in rice, discovery of an epidemic of chronic kidney disease in Sri Lankan farmers and other disturbing facts and figures surrounding agricultural regulation and enforcement (or lack of) and farming practices on the island. I've also had a bit of a dig around the internet to see what else is being reported in various Asian countries. It's more alarming than soothing when you delve deeper into this area, and part of me wonders how serious this issue really is. As I write up my thoughts, I don't yet have the answer to these musings... but, it is certainly a big issue from my perspective. I wonder if it'll be an issue that will ultimately break the camel's back when it comes down to staying or going...

Agro-chemicals - Pesticides, Insecticides and Fertilizers

Based on the material I've read, agro-chemicals were first introduced into Sri Lanka in the 1950s as a means to control malaria. Since that time, there has been a significant increase in the use of agro-chemicals in Sri Lanka to ensure crop protection and to aid crop production levels. According to the statistics, the use of agro-chemicals (primarily for crop protection) in Sri Lanka has increased by over 30 times (from 20,000 tonnes in the 1950s to 612,000 tonnes in 2000) eek And, it topped the list as the highest user of agro-chemicals in the world in 2012/13.

Agro-chemicals comprise pesticides, insecticides, weedicides and fertilizers. Pesticides, insecticides and weedicides are primarily used to control pests in agricultural production and they contain a range of chemical compounds that can be lethal to targeted and non-targeted pests. Chemical fertilizers are a mix of chemical compounds used to increase crop yields and ensure food security.

There are a variety of issues raised about the impact of agro-chemicals used in the agricultural industry including depletion of soil fertility, contamination of water supplies, additional pest and disease invasion, negative impact on bio-diversity, food poisoning, harmful effects on human health and more.

Globally, there are calls for greater use of organic fertilizers or natural resources, improved soil management practices, biotechnology and other means. However, the necessity for greater crop yields and food production remains a major hurdle in the agricultural equation.

Article: Lanka tops in the use of Agro Chemicals
Article: Agricultural pesticide use in Sri Lanka
Article: Pesticides or humanicides?
Article: Fertilizer use in plantations and future implications
Article: Sri Lanka to control indiscriminate usage of chemical fertilizer and agrochemicals

Pesticide poisoning including Chronic Kidney Disease

Apparently, pesticide poisoning is one of the leading causes of hospitalization and death in Sri Lanka, which is alarming. The Ministry of Health publishes an annual Health Bulletin summarizing key indicators including leading causes of hospital admissions, hospital deaths and trends in hospital morbidity and mortality, as well as specific data reports on Indoor Morbidity and Mortality up to 2010. It seems the rate of pesticide poisoning (i.e. the toxic effects of organophosphate and carbamate insecticides) in Sri Lanka is one of the highest in the world, and significantly higher than that found in western countries.

There have been numerous studies undertaken on pesticide poisoning in Sri Lanka as an acute public health issue. A recent study highlighted two main types of pesticide poisoning: (1) suicidal poisoning due to the ingestion of lethal pesticides; (2) accidental poisoning due to incorrect handling of large quantities of pesticides - particularly prevalent where intensive agricultural activities occur. The other minor cases involve occupational and other types of pesticide poisoning. Self poisoning appears to be a particular problem in Sri Lanka.

There are also quite a few research studies on the subject of pesticide poisoning in Sri Lanka. Only a few are listed below. Many examine the banning of particular pesticides as well as the impact of government regulation. Unfortunately, while there may be a decline in poisoning as a result of banning of specific pesticides, it would appear other highly toxic pesticides are often substituted in its place.

Article: Poisoning cause for most cases of hospitalisation, deaths
Research paper: Effects of provincial ban on two toxic organophosphorus insecticides on pesticide poisoning hospital admissions
WHO Bulletin: Acute pesticide poisoning: a proposed classification tool
Research paper: Pesticide poisoning in Sri Lanka
Research paper: Influence of pesticide regulation on acute poisoning deaths in Sri Lanka
Website: South Asian Clinical Toxicology Research Collaboration (SACTRC)

Additionally, I've read there are still pesticides used in Sri Lanka that are banned in other countries. For example, last year I came across an article, titled "Cheap food vs death by poisoning: India's food dilemma" in the India Today online newspaper. It reported the death of 23 children in a village school providing free lunches under a government-sponsored programme, due to the highly toxic pesticide, monocrotophos. The lunches were apparently placed in containers that had been previously used to store the pesticide.

Monocrotophos is known as a highly toxic pesticide with a "high" hazard level on the World Health Organization's classification of pesticides. It is considered a cheap and effective pesticide by those that use it, and if it can be fatal for a human to consume half a teaspoon of it. Monocrotophos is banned by many countries, however it was reported Sri Lanka allows monocrotophos use in coconut cultivation. In one of the research papers on the banning of specific pesticides in Sri Lankan, it stated that monocrotophos was one of three pesticides that was "the most common cause of fatal self-poisoning in Sri Lanka during the 1980s and early 1990s". At the date of writing, I don't know if there is any truth to Sri Lanka continuing to use monocrotophos now, but the fact it continues to be reported in the news is of concern, especially given its ban in most other countries.

Another research study I came across, in an article titled "Presence of Arsenic in pesticides used in Sri Lanka", found the presence of arsenic in drinking water and locally-grown rice in the Northern-Central province, even though pesticides containing arsenic or arsenic compounds as the active ingredient has banned within Sri Lanka since 2001. I also found further discussion in an article titled "Chemical warfare agents in pesticides used in Sri Lanka".

As I trawled the internet, I found yet another article titled "Hidden poison in vegetable – agrochemicals". The article makes reference to a research study conducted by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) on 240 randomly selected vegetable and potato farmers in the Badulla and Nuwara Eliya Districts. The findings made my eyes boggle! Firstly, some farmers appear to be applying pesticides on their crops up to 7-10 days before harvest, even though farmers have been advised to refrain from pesticides up to 14 days before harvest due to the potential harm it may cause. Secondly, some farmers are maintaining their own agrochemical-free vegetable plots for their own consumption, raising concerns as to whether certain farmers are knowingly poisoning consumers.

World Health Organization (WHO), in response to a request from the Ministry of Health, conducted a study to examine the significant increase in Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDu) observed in the North Central, North Western, Ova and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. They conducted a research study and their final report was published in late 2012. The WHO findings suggest that:
"Chronic exposure to cadmium may be playing a role in the causation of CKDu and co-exposure to arsenic is likely to aggravate the effect of cadmium on the kidney... one or more pesticide residues were above reference levels in 31.6% of people with CKDu. Residues are demonstrative of the extent of the environmental distribution of pesticides and certain pesticides are nephrotoxic. Simultaneous exposure to nephrotoxic pesticides may be contributing to the progression of the disease in people with CKDu
The Sri Lankan government countered that the findings were not conclusive and reinforced that there are strict processes and procedures in place for the evaluation of agro-chemical imports in accordance with international standards. By the way, the government accounts for over 70% of total annual fertilizer purchases while the rest is purchased by the commercial sector.

In Sri Lanka, it is reported that farmers receive supplies of fertilizer more or less free. A government subsidy is available to farmers, so they pay only about Rs.300 when the retail price is between Rs.1,500 to Rs.2,000. It is has been suggested that as a result of this subsidy, farmers apply fertilizer excessively to their crops.

It is interesting to note that globally, CKD is prevalent in countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bangladesh and India and mostly from farming communities that apply synthetic chemicals excessively.

Government oversight and regulation

So what has the Sri Lankan government done to address some of the issues pertaining to the agricultural sector, food production and overall safety?

Well, there is the Department of Agriculture which administers the various acts and regulations on soil conservation, plant protection, seeds and pesticides.

Following the release of the WHO report on their study into Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDu) and after much discussion, a Cabinet sub-committee was appointed by the Sri Lankan government to study the issues and recommend measures. They subsequently banned several pesticides and organic liquid fertilizer, encouraged use of organic fertilizers and altered the distribution process of local seeds to farmers. There were also recommendations to conduct awareness campaigns to educate farmers on the correct use of pesticides and fertilizer to combat their inherent misuse.

However, the breadth of issues raised with respect to the high use of agro-chemicals and some of the negative effects of their use begs the question of "whether there is sufficient government oversight or regulation over the use of agro-chemicals in Sri Lanka's agricultural sector?"

Unfortunately, there have been general allegations in the public media regarding the increasing intervention of multinational corporations with Agriculture ministry and other government officials. I have no clue as to the truth behind these allegations, however, the fact that agro-chemical use continues to increase despite all the research studies and medical findings is concerning to say the least!

Article: Sri Lanka to control indiscriminate usage of chemical fertilizer and agrochemicals
Article: Project launched to improve safety, quality of fruits and vegetables
Article: Organic fertilizer
Article: Four pesticides and one weedicide banned 
Article: Sri Lanka introduces strict laws on pesticide sales
Article: Chemical fertilizer use, a major problem - minister

Additionally, I was reading an article that stated Sri Lanka has yet to be prescribed a national list of Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) or upper legal levels of a concentration for pesticide residues in or on food or feed based on good agricultural practices as governed under the Control of Pesticides Act of 1980. MRLs are widely adopted globally. It definitely makes sense for Sri Lanka to look at this as soon as possible and to enforce an effective means for monitoring as well. Without this in place, as consumers we are unknowingly at risk

It is clear there is either insufficient interest within the government to champion the cause for food security and overall public health and safety (and as a result there is a lack of proper government oversight or regulation of the agricultural sector in place), or if appropriate government oversight or regulation is in place, it hasn't been effectively enforced.

An important point to note is most of the new projects or significant changes relating to pesticide bans, process changes within the Department of Agriculture, seed distribution management, awareness workshops and training of Public Health Inspectors, Exporters and Processors have only been made over the last six to twelve months.

There's also an obvious correlation between the use of agro-chemicals, crop yields, farming income, crop prices and overall administrative costs etc. Proper examination of the socio-economic implications and further overall analysis of all inputs and outputs is needed to properly address these issues as a whole.

Genetically modified (GM) food

After all this talk about agro-chemicals, I guess the next obvious thought that springs to mind is "what about the status of genetically modified foods in Sri Lanka?".

Sri Lanka banned the imports of Genetically Modified (GM) food in 2001. The Department of Agriculture website also confirms that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and living modified organisms (LMOs) are not allowed to be imported into Sri Lanka.

This is great in principle, until I read an editorial in the Daily Mirror titled "Slippery bananas", which seemed to indicate there are "certain companies producing genetically modified bananas on large tracts of land down south and elsewhere such varieties are being cultivated." Unbeknownst to the public, it appears these genetically modified varieties are being sold alongside local varieties like ‘koli kuttu’, ‘ambul’ and ‘anamalu’. When I read this, I thought "how is this possible if GM is banned in Sri Lanka?"

Aside from the example above, which must have some form of on the table (or under the table) government endorsement, my thinking is although there are laws in place to ban GMOs/LMOs and for labeling, the monitoring and enforcement of such things is not sufficiently in place, nor well resourced.

[My] way forward

I've been reading about all kinds of alternative agricultural technologies such as hydroponics, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, organic farming and more. There are some amazing new methods and farming practices that have been developed to steer agriculture in a safer direction though it doesn't entirely address the situation with regards to global food production yield requirements.

However, as much as this is all positive, I figure I need a short term solution to all the issues I've turned up with respect to the food I purchase and consume in Sri Lanka. Right now, I'm second guessing what I buy at the supermarket and Sunday pola, as well as when I travel to rural agricultural areas!

In my garden I grow an assortment of fruit and vegetables. I have katamurunga, curry leaves, chillies, mandarins, papayas, bananas, bitter gourd, okra, spinach, ambarella, guava and more. I'm also growing mangoes, beli and pomegranate, which have yet to fruit.

One of the solutions I've been pondering is to grow more own fruit and vegetables at home i.e. expand my existing fruit and vegetable plots. I already enjoy the produce I grow from my garden and I don't use any fertilizer or pesticides, so it's definitely organic. Plus, I have my own compost heap, which contains grass cuttings, uncooked fruit and vegetable peelings etc.. I the apply the compost around my garden, trees and vines. It seems to do the trick biggrin

I've also spoken with an ayurvedic doctor based in Colombo about this subject and he had a few interesting insights to share. One of the things he mentioned was the "balancing effect" in Sri Lanka of crops that have no agro-chemicals associated with their growth (for example, jakfruit and breadfruit trees) and crops that have excessively high levels of agro-chemicals applied to increase crop yields. He contrasted this with this view of western countries having a basic level of agro-chemicals applied across all of their crop production. I am curious at the plausibility of his perspective... in any event, I'll take the tip about the jakfruit and breadfruit.

The irony isn't lost on me how Sri Lanka is a remarkably fertile country. You can pretty much plant something and it will grow and flourish without any additional assistance. I suspect many modern pests have been introduced to the country via external new inputs into the growing process. Now, I wonder how long it will take before soil fertility is degraded and the things that are taken for granted no longer exist.

The other point he made was about the many varieties of ayurvedic plants, vegetables and fruits that grow naturally in Sri Lanka. Often village mothers have been passed down the information from their mothers about the unique and healing qualities about specific plants and vegetables. These are not mass produced nor exported, but grow organically in home gardens and in the wild. Many of these plants and vegetables can be easily combined to make salads and have a healing effect on the body. Suffice it to say, it's worthwhile brushing up or learning about some of these precious plants, vegetables and fruits.

* * * * * * * *

As to the overall outlook for the Sri Lankan agricultural industry as a whole and the issues associated with crop protection and crop yields it is safe to say there is more interest needed at senior levels of government; more work to be done to regulate and oversee the agricultural process; greater lobbying by consumers and advocacy groups; and greater awareness of these issues by the country as a whole. If our food security is at stake, why aren't we doing something about this as a priority? The current situation is unacceptable, unpalatable and unsustainable.


Anonymous said...

great article, thanks so much!

Lucie said...

Very good and detailed. And worrying....Its a sad reality we are facing.
Thank you so much for sharing the precious information you dig out.

Best wishes,

Eva Stone said...

Thanks for the comment Lucie. It's a real concern for anyone living in Sri Lanka, and there are many different things going on for farmers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, government and consumers.

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