India should suspend pesticide ban until threat of global food crisis subsides

The Ministry of Agriculture should wait until the current global mini-crisis in food production subsides before undertaking its review of a proposed ban on 27 pesticides which together account for around 50% of the pesticides used in the country. Rushing to ban pesticides and seeing a sharp drop in agricultural production at a time of rising global food and fertilizer prices would not be the most prudent way to protect our people.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, food and fertilizer prices have risen. Russia and Ukraine are the largest and fifth largest wheat exporters in the world. Russia is one of the main exporters of fertilizers and fertilizer inputs. Ukraine is a major supplier of sunflower seeds (this is what prompted a Ukrainian woman to tell a Russian soldier to carry a handful of sunflower seeds in his pocket, “so that something good comes out of you when this war will be over”).

The Economist’s food commodity price index rose 30% from a year ago in late March. Wheat prices rose 45% as shipments from Black Sea ports used by Ukraine and Russia ceased. Palm oil prices soared as sunflower supply from Ukraine collapsed.

Sri Lanka, in our neighborhood, has single-handedly created a food crisis, suddenly abandoning the use of fertilizers and insecticides in favor of organic farming.

It is in this context that the long-awaited examination of a proposal to ban 27 pesticides takes place. Many of these pesticides have been in use for 20 to 30 years. If their use is extended for another year, the heavens will not fall. The sensible thing to do is not to make agricultural production more difficult than it already is, given higher fertilizer prices, fiscal pressures on government and the global export window of opportunity for Indian farmers and the struggling Food Corporation of India (FCI). ), which contains two and a half times more grain than is legally required as a buffer. FCI can easily offload much of its inventory to meet the needs of African countries, the World Food Program and neighboring Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Most people love to hate the pesticide industry, shuddering at reports of traces of DDT in breast milk, toxic residues on grapes and eggplant (baingan), and marveling at the promise of healthy organic food. Most of these gullible, uncritical beliefs in pop culture, which breed the demonization of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, often stem from ignorance rather than science.

Without the availability of pesticides, the locusts would wipe out vast swaths of agricultural produce, dooming millions of people to starvation. Agricultural production and productivity would be depressing without weed and pest killing chemicals. We need pesticides and herbicides to feed a large and growing population.

It’s about using fertilizers and pesticides wisely, getting the maximum benefits and avoiding overuse. Different pesticides have different target sites and different modes of action to kill pests. There are neurotoxins; there are growth inhibitors; there are dryers. Neurotoxins include calcium channel blockers and sodium seekers. At different stages in the evolution of a pest, from egg to larva and from pupa to adult, different types of pesticides work through different modes of action. Farmers need to be trained on which pesticide to use when. Educating farmers on the proper use of the right pesticide at the right time is time consuming and difficult. Banning pesticide categories is much simpler, makes better headlines, and scores brownie points on ESG accounts. But the risk is that a ban could also destroy much agricultural production, livelihoods and, in some cases, lives.

Every time another country has banned a pesticide is not a good reason for India to ban it here. That country might not grow the crop for which the pesticide in question is important. The pesticide can take much longer to break down in freezing temperatures than in a country like India. India-specific studies, in accordance with India-specific testing protocols, must be conducted before the government decides to ban the chemicals. Farmers should be consulted on the availability of viable alternatives.

The pesticide industry must be forced to invest in R&D and adopt the latest technologies to enable Indian agriculture to be globally competitive. The current food shortage has opened an opportunity to increase India’s food exports. But that does not mean that countries that set the bar high on sanitary and phytosanitary conditions would abandon them. Indian agro-exporters should adhere to these standards, and our pesticide industry should be aware of this constraint. Several of the products on the list of 27 chemicals proposed to be banned help Indian farmers meet these standards in importing countries.

That the Ukrainian crisis on the food front is resolved. Let agricultural universities and the research ecosystem develop India-specific testing and standardization protocols for old and new pesticide molecules, let these tests be carried out and their results evaluated. Hold the ban until then.

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About Lolita Plowman

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