Opinion: Take the poison out of India's food

Indian schoolchildren recovering from food poisoning receive medical treatment at the Patna Medical College and Hospital in Patna on July 20, 2013.

NEW DELHI, India — On July 16, school children in Dharamsati village, 50 miles north of Patna, Bihar were served food laden with the organophosphate pesticide, monocrotophos — a deadly poison that is used in agriculture to save crops from pests. Within three days, the death toll reached 23; many more were critically ill. Even those who survived the effects of acute poisoning may still face permanent damage of tissues and organs.

Although the pesticide that killed the school children is banned in several countries across the world, it is used extensively in India.

Organophosphates were initially developed during World War II for chemical warfare. After the war, the facilities and resources that were used to produce organophosphate poison for chemical warfare were diverted to produce organophosphate pesticide for agriculture. In order to promote these chemicals, a pseudo-scientific and reductionist approach was adapted under the umbrella of the Green Revolution. Through mass propaganda, the movement pushed an industrial model of agriculture — one which incorporates the use of fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid and GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, fossil fuel, and mechanization — as the mandatory solution to abolishing hunger and feeding the world’s growing population.

But, as we’ve implemented that philosophy, has hunger and malnutrition disappeared from our planet? Have we achieved food security? Is our food healthy? Is our food safe?

Approximately a quarter of a billion Indians are too impoverished to afford adequate food — that’s more hungry and malnourished than sub-Saharan Africa. The little food that the poor consume is low in quality and often contaminated with deadly chemicals. Industrial farming and conventional monoculture farming are responsible, in part, for keeping Indians in poverty and encouraging the overuse of dangerous chemicals.

Agriculture employs 57 percent of workers in India. Most of these agricultural workers are landless laborers and small, marginal farmers. Because of the prevalence of traditional family systems in rural India, not only do these workers depend on agriculture for food, but they also rely on farming to meet their families’ basic needs.

Conventional farming has diverted agricultural resources to produce cash crops instead of food. Unfortunately, cash crops fail to earn enough money to sustain a dignified living for the Indian peasant. Furthermore, farmers have to set aside a sizable chunk of money to cover the high cost of inputs like fertilizer, pesticide and heavy irrigation. The expenses keep profits down, leading to low income and poor nutrition.

In addition to contributing to hunger, conventional farming practices contaminate food with deadly chemicals, pollute the ecosystem and cause species extinction and biodiversity erosion. In India, the pesticide industry is largely unregulated. Poisons are freely distributed and sold with no restrictions, training, guidelines, and monitoring. Transnational corporations and their marketing managers promote chemicals as “Dawai” or medicine for the plant, convincing poor, uneducated farmers to use poisonous chemicals excessively. The poisons eventually find their way into the food chain, often with tragic results.

A large number of Indian farmers and food handlers are illiterate. Most can’t decipher the safety instructions written on pesticide containers because they are either illegible or written in English instead of the farmer’s regional language. A majority of these farmers have no prior training in the handling and application of pesticides. As a result, they are unaware of the risks posed by chemicals, and indulge in dangerous practices such as storing food in pesticide containers.

The farmers are unaware of the correct pesticide dosages and are heavily influenced by dealers who are motivated to earn high profit at any cost. In Punjab and many parts of the country, farmers use dangerous and spurious mixtures of pesticides, dismissing all guidelines. These cocktails of pesticides are more dangerous and more persistent than individual ingredients of the mixture.

The school lunch poisonings should be a trigger for India to initiate the elimination of pesticides completely from our agriculture and our food system. Until we address the root of the crisis, we will fail to stave off future tragedies. We need a deep understanding of agroecosystems based on agroecological principles, an approach that shall guarantee safe food in appropriate amounts for each one of us. To counter the ill effects of industrial farming, we propose growing food organically and locally.

Instead of feeding our children with low-quality, contractor-procured food, comprised mostly of soybean and potato, we should focus on making edible schoolyards where nutritive food is grown locally. Some food is grown at the school and the rest at local farms. The approach shares the task of feeding school children with nutrient rich vegetables with the local community to which the school children belong. These community gardens would provide a learning platform for school children to imbibe the concepts of ecology, soil biology, biodiversity, nutrition, and health practically. But most importantly, they would lead to greater accountability in terms of food safety and food quality.

Dr. Mira Shiva is an Indian physician and public health activist who specializes in food and nutrition — among other things. She is a leader with the Peoples’ Health Council, Health Action International-Asia Pacific and Third World Network. Dr. Vaibhav Singh is a research associate at Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology located in New Dheli. The two co-authored the 2012 book "Poisons in our Food: Links between Pesticides and Diseases."