As usual, I am awake, while it’s dark outside. Soon the birds begin chirping, one can identify pigeons, magpie robins, parrots, tailorbirds, crows, babblers and partridges. Their chirping ushers in the dawn. I step out, the sky is brighter, and the air is fresh. Blissful it seems, till I look down to find a dead bee on the floor and then there are more and some more. I flinch for a moment. Deep down, I would have hoped otherwise, but I half expected it. It always happens after we spray Profenofos, an organophosphate insecticide. When every measure to stop the pests fails, it’s the extremely toxic weapon of last resort. It also affects brain development in humans, particularly children.
In Land Healer, Jack Fiennes writes that we’ve been brought up to classify anything that competes with our crops as vermin, pest or weed. Farmers have spent careers killing things they don’t need. That is what pesticides do. They are indiscriminately applied to the crop, not because they are needed but because we are trying to prevent pests and diseases from reaching a point where they become impossible to control. Decades of lack of quality farm advisory services and staff shortages across states have compelled farmers to become risk averse. That has resulted in pests and diseases developing resistance to the existing applications, requiring stronger, more toxic responses every passing year.
Considering the genetic altering impact on the human body and biodiversity loss, reduction in pesticide usage should have become a national priority long ago. Going by past experience, I am only cautiously optimistic of government delivery, but nevertheless am proposing four interventions that will reduce farm chemical input usage by a third, to begin with.
One, the business model of the farm chemical input industry must transform to become a service industry: A few years ago on a visit to Sargodha in Pakistan, I was pleasantly surprised to witness a Syngenta franchise selling its brand of farm chemicals. It also offered services to get farms sprayed, ensuring lesser input application. In India, shopkeepers sell farm chemical inputs from multiple companies, and their business model — like any other business — rewards shopkeepers with higher margins for increasing sales. Shopkeepers also nudge farmers to buy what they may not necessarily need. But, when one is selling poisonous substances, these practices are loathsome. Individual farmers cannot afford good quality precision spraying equipment and that leads to wrong application and excess usage. To offset these issues, 10 per cent of farm chemical input sales of each seller could be in the form of services (spray on farms). Each following year, the seller would mandatorily increase the services by an additional 10 per cent, till the business model had become one of the services contracted, and not of farm chemical inputs sold.
Two, shopkeepers should report each sale of farm chemicals to the government in real time. Last year in Punjab, an interface was developed for this purpose. It could be operated by a person with the skill sets of a Class VIII student but was not implemented due to sheer apathy.
Three, a mandatory QR code on each farm chemical package: Bayer, the world’s largest seed and pesticide company has started to print a QR code on every pesticide package. It is an excellent idea that will allow each farm input package used on the farm to be traceable to the factory floor. These measures will allow for better-targeted farm advisory and grievance redressal. The lack of real-time quality data inhibits transparency and accountability, making the reduction of chemical use difficult. The last two proposals address the issue.
Four, an independent regulator: Safety data generated by the industry is practically taken at face value when regulatory approval is given. But volunteerism is no substitute for regulation. The basic tenets of law dictate that regulators have to be independent. Horrifyingly, however, in the case of farm chemical inputs, the same officials and departments that advocate their use also regulate the trade. This adds to the noxious brew of misgovernance and other attendant problems. To ensure an independent regulatory authority, the Union Cabinet Secretary should order that the regulation of farm chemicals be transferred to the health ministry.
Decades ago, when I returned home for the summer holidays from boarding school, Mayo College, peacocks were a common sight on village rooftops during the train journey. I do not remember sighting one in the last two decades. When peacocks ingested insects and rodents killed by pesticides, they died too. The last I read, partridges eat 2,000 insects a day. I wonder which species will vanish next.