Effects of Pesticides

Poison on a platter

Subecha Dahal, Senior Content Creator

October 3, 2017

We like to buy fruits and vegetables that show no obvious signs of insect, decay or damage. But at what cost?

A diet of fresh fruits and vegetables is considered synonymous to healthy eating world over. There is increasing evidence that it reduces risk of many cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and chronic diseases. What if we told you, that the same fresh fruits and green vegetables could be the source of health problems over time?

The use of excessive pesticide is a well known issue for the aware consumer. Improper application and use of pesticide can leave residue in the produce, which when consumed over time can cause grave health issues.

Why do farmers use pesticides and why is it an issue?

The term pesticide covers a wide range of compounds including insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, plant growth regulators and many others. The primary benefit of pesticide use is protection of crops to increase its yield. Ideally a pesticide must be lethal to targeted pests, but not to non-target species, including man. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Majority of these pesticides reach and leave a residue on non-targets. Hence the concern over the use and abuse of pesticides has surfaced.

Improper application and use of pesticide can leave residue in the produce, which when consumed over time can cause grave health issues.

The problem of overuse

Long term and over usage of pesticides has resulted in resistant pests and weeds. This means stronger chemicals are needed  to achieve the same amount of control and more frequently. And it might not even prove to be entirely effective. Off-season crops have also contributed significantly to rising levels of pesticide and growth promoting chemical use. While it is good for the consumer to have produce all year around, it is more harmful to health because off-season crops require more treatment to achieve the same amount of yield as seasonal produce. This means increased residue on produce with more potency.  

How does it affect my health?

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that some pesticides have hazardous effects on human health and the environment. Prolonged consumption even in small dosage can have fatal effects. Pesticides are neurotoxins and can affect vital organs like kidney and liver and disrupt the endocrine system. This can lead to immune suppression, hormone disruption, diminished intelligence, reproductive abnormalities and cancer. It can cause food poisoning and allergic reactions and are even more dangerous to pregnant women.

Where are the numbers?

Globally over 355000 deaths occurs annually due to unintentional acute poisoning, mostly due to chemicals used in agriculture. This is not counting the number of chronic conditions it causes. This number could be higher, especially in countries like Nepal where there is lack of proper surveillance, research and monitoring of this issue. This results in lack of credible evidence and data. While it may be an overwhelming undertaking to try to monitor all farms for pesticide use or surveille all health incidences in population, but it could show definitive results by conducting test for pesticide residue in the blood stream of sample population.

Farmer spraying pesticides on their crop.

As a responsible consumer what can I do?

In a recent study, nearly 14% of vegetables sold at Kalimati market was found to have pesticide residue that was high or above permissible limits. Cleaning and washing thoroughly before using produces rids them of most residue. However it does not completely rid the produce of the chemicals. It is preferable to adopt an organic diet, but there is no proper monitoring scheme regarding certification of organic food. There are many ways organic produces could be contaminated.

We tend to get attracted to shiny, fresh looking vegetables and fruits with no visible flaw. We presume that any sign of flaw as unhealthy. But unfortunately there is no way to visually distinguish which produce you see in the market has pesticide residue. Only laboratory test can provide that information. As a consumer it is your right to ask for healthy produce in the market and hold the appropriate authority accountable for stricter regulations.

In a recent study, nearly 14% of vegetables sold at Kalimati market was found to have pesticide residue that was high or above permissible limits.

Is the usage of pesticides in Nepal that alarming?

In Nepal, while the amount of pesticides used is not yet alarming, the way it is handled is.

  • Most farmers do not follow instructions when applying pesticides. They do not follow a waiting period after using pesticide and send the produce to the market soon after harvest. It results in consumers buying product with pesticide residue on them.
  • There is also rampant availability of substandard pesticide of questionable quality. The porous border of Nepal with India becomes a convenient channel for illegal and unmonitored import of pesticides that has more harmful chemicals.
  • Farmers are unaware of the kinds of pesticides they use. They could be using substandard, stronger and harmful chemicals that they themselves are at most risk handling.

How to best regulate it?

Without pesticide use, the agricultural industry will suffer huge losses, so banning pesticide is not a solution. The health risk associated with pesticide residue are also not fully understood by farmers and producers or even studied. And it is difficult to hold a market accountable that is not centralized.  But there are many ways concerned government bodies could adopt to regulate pesticide use:

  • Conduct studies and research into the effect of pesticide residue in public health
  • Set and recommend a standard specification for use of pesticide
  • Inform farmers that using pesticide in recommended amount does not result in harmful impact
  • Raise farmer’s knowledge about the risks involved due to overuse, not only to consumers’ health but to surrounding environment and ecosystem
  • Reduce reliance on pesticides and encourage use of other alternatives
  • Encourage use of low risk pesticides in cases of inevitable pesticide use
  • Conserve and use useful natural enemies and parasites to suppress crop pests
  • Establish effective residue monitoring channels should be in place

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