Arsenic or not pesticides are deadly


by Charita Wijeratne

Laboratory tests alarmed some scientist academics and warned us about the presence of arsenic compounds in pesticides. Also on the basis of laboratory tests another group of scientist-academics allayed our fears by finding no traces of arsenic in water. Also on the basis of tests (no mention of laboratory) the Agriculture Ministry hastened to assure us that there are absolutely no traces of arsenic in the rice we eat. With that last almost commanding announcement, the embattled scientists retreated into their shells.

So be it, even if the Webster’s New World Dictionary defines arsenic as ‘silvery white, brittle, very poisonous chemical element, compounds of which are used in making insecticides and medicines etc.’. But does that assurance, and the ‘scientific’ silence, make us feel safe to eat our food and drink our water? Certainly not. Even without arsenic, pesticides, herbicides, and now GM food, are no less hazardous. Perhaps looking only for arsenic the testers did not and could not detect traces of other poisonous compounds such as cyanide, glyphosate, glufocynate, hydrocarbon and others. What intrigues us is why the Health Ministry did not think it necessary to intervene in the controversy, especially when our hospitals admit about 15,000 pesticide victims an year.

Let that also pass. We, for ourselves, cannot be so complacent. So, because of the potential risks of pesticides to the bodily organs of farmers who use them, of nearby people, and of consumers of food thus produced, it would be reasonable as a precautionyar measures to briefly mention the toxic properties of three or four commonly used chemical inputs: monocrotophos; cypex methrin 10% and 20% EC; fen-valrate 20% EC; chlorpyriphos; dimethoate, acepat 75%; quinolphos 20% EC; surpass 35%; roundup.

These are commonly used pesticides and herbicides and are available in six to eight brands. Their acute toxity cause damage to the central nervous system, paralysis, death due to respiratory arrest, hepatic disorders. They also affect kidney, heart and spleen organs. Other symptoms include excessive salivation, perspiration, coma and death by asphyxia.

WHO reports that high levels of pesticide residues have been detected in food commodities such as wheat, rice, pulses, groundnut, millets, fish and milk. Highest contaminations were found in Asia, the worst being India.

Even without laboratory tests, the risks of using these pesticides can be ascertained from experience. In Malaysia the farmer percentage is 65 and 75 in India. Dr. Prayoon laments that ground water in South Thailand is completely polluted by the use of carbofuran and parquet in rice fields. He was the head of the Toxic Substance Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. He says that the aquatic industry in Central Thailand is completely destroyed.

His emotional outburst for help reads: ‘I want to appeal to everybody here to support those of us who speak out in our country against the misuse of pesticides. The agricultural chemical industries are very strong and have a lot of influence on the government and the whole economy. Unless you support those who stand up and speak out they can become isolated, or even worse, killed.’ TNCs and Economic Justice in Asia – DAGA.

Not in Asia only. In the USA out of 800 cattle heads tested three-fourths were found to be disabled. Ground water was contaminated in eight states. DDT, Adrain, Lindane, Parathion, Heptochlor and Taxopane were found in wells in California. Streams in Switzerland were seriously polluted with pesticide residues. Tests also revealed that 75 per cent of personnel engaged in the manufacture and distribution of pesticides suffer from numerous disabilities.

An UN Economic and Social Committee found that annually between 20,000 and 40,000 in the world die of pesticide poisoning. Tests have revealed that out of 426 compounds in pesticides 164 have been implicated as causing cancer, genetic mutations or reproductive problems ranging from impotency to birth defects. Consumers of food produced by using these are at the risk of being subject to cancer and birth defects.

The infamous Union Carbide accident in Bhopal claimed thousands of lives while tens of thousands were maimed and blinded. Hazards are still persisting and new clinics are being opened by volunteers. Of the pesticides used in Asia seventy percent are banned in Europe. The peril is not only in the process of food production and consumption. Many deaths have been reported from pesticides sprayed in gardens and roadsides.

In Sri Lanka health personnel and other concerned scientists are too preoccupied in laboratories and cannot spare some time to venture into the field. So, we do not know the state of water and soil where pesticides are used. It is only recently, when the problem of rampant kidney ailments in the North Central Province became acute, making it no longer possible to ignore the pained cries of victims and their relatives, that authorities could be goaded into the field. Water in a few tanks has been tested, only to find some residues of aluminum pots!

A casual observer can see hundreds of litres of pesticide being poured into rice fields, sprayers being washed in channels and empties thrown about. Polluted water in the fields flow into channels and in turn drains into tanks and rivers. That is what we laymen can say, except that members of farming communities suffer from unidentified ailments from unidentified causes.

This brings me to a subject that stimulates my itch to write. But for want of space I promise to dispose of it very briefly. Countered with world-wide protests over the perils of pesticides, agro-chemical corporations led by Monsanto, came out with a strange alternative, produced through genetic engineering – genetically modified organisms (GMOS). They are safe, they say. However, GMOS are horrors – inhuman horrors – compared to pesticides. The eminent Indian scientist and campaigner calls them ‘Frankenstein food’.

GMOS are produced by mixing species that would not mix in nature. The reader will see that by eating GM food he will be savoring the scorpion, the spider, the toad and… the human. That is because, the genes obtained to modify plants such as soybean, tomato, potato, maize, papaya, strawberry and tobacco include, among others, the scorpion, the poisonous African toad, the spider, the tarantula, a poisonous arctic fish the flounder, the Eurasian mouse and the human. Lest there be any doubt about the latter name, human genes are inserted into goats to produce ‘human’ proteins in the milk.

An EU Scientific Committee reports that GM foods have the potential risk of causing cancer prostate cancer, breast cancer and mental disorders leading to insanity. In the US thousands fell ill and many suffered death after eating such food.

GM food threatens human and animal health because they contain genes from unrelated organisms. The BSE, or mad cow, epidemic is well known. Eating a GM food supplement called L-tryptophan, thousands of North Americans fell, ill, dozens died with in weeks and thousands were mimed. (Third World Network Features). What then would be the result of eating potato with a gene from the African clawed toad, or the wasp, or the scorpion, or the cone snail, or the Australian funnel web spider?

The effect of GMOs on the biodiversity in general and on food species in particular is devastating. GM crops have displaced diverse varieties of food crops that people of diverse cultures have used in their food. The genetically engineered Round UP is a herbicide which kills everything that it touches. It destroys the entire biodiversity, both cultivated and wild. It kills not only the sprayed plants but also the vegetation in a wide area. Herbicide resistant crops are destroying the reed and grass from which rural women make their living. One aim of this technology is to promote uniformity by having herbicide resistant crops. Economically and ecologically useful plants will face the threat of extinction. Medical and wild food plants which characterize tropical jungles will vanish. Further, more toxic chemicals have to be used on pesticide and herbicide resistant plants. In 1973 a committee of eleven prominent scientists called for a moratorium on experiments in biotechnology because of the hazards to human health and the biodiversity.

European nations refuse to have GMOs anywhere within their borders. They are banned also in several other countries. In Sri Lanka, we relishingly savour GM foods without an inkling of the dangers lurking inside them. However, with time and more news trickling down, health authorities got a shock. If I remember right, it was in 2002 that regulations requiring the labeling of GM foods were gazetted. Then came a greater shock. An angry US Ambassador personally delivered his protest letter, at which the authorities wilted and folded up their regulations. A few years later, health and food officials, this time charged by the Mahinda Chintanaya, regazetted the regulations with additional clauses. The tone was more compelling and gallant. But it all faded out along with the labels. So much for MC.

So, the real issue is not arsenic, but one about producing wholesome food without fouling our planet. That is easily attainable by adopting correct methods of cultivation. Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in their introduction to Secrets of the Soil say, ‘no creature, not even the swine, befouls its nest with such abandon as does the homo sapien, poisoning its habitat with fiendishly concocted chemicals and its deadly toxic waste. A morass of rotting human flesh awaits us unless the antidotes are rapidly applied.’ Fortunately the antidotes are there.

A more interesting approach is shown by, perhaps the greatest practical agriculturalist the words has ever known, Sir Albert Howard, who after thirty odd years of agriculture in India wrote The Agricultural Testament. I am not quoting as I only have our own Sinhala translation. He says that insect and virus damages in a crop are but the signals given by the agents of mother native the warn that cultivation methods are wrong. What we do is will the agents that give the helpful signal. Instead, the farmer should correct his error. If fertility is restored to the soil by way of correctly prepared humus, if aeration and the mycorrhizal association are in order and if moisture and sunlight are available, the crop will grow succulently and there will absolutely be no hindrance from parasites. Our own experience confirmed this and that is why we treat Dr. Howards’s book as a practical guide. Weeds are a resource to us. Among the visitors to our fields was Prof. Tissa Vitharana, when he was the Minister of Technology and Scientific Affairs. Others include academics of the Faculty of Agriculture, Peradeniya.

Farming in Asia is not just a individual job of producing a crop somehow and somewhere and clinching a price. Rather, it is a community culture of producing and shaving wholesome food in abundance and living harmonious and contented lives within healthy environs.

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