There is never any end to learning. And so, surprises. We have learnt, over 20 years, that environmental governance in India is lackadaisical. Still, the extent of irresponsibility never fails to surprise.
Some months ago we did a study on pesticides in bottled water. We were really looking at pesticides in drinking water but research on municipal water supply was too difficult, so bottled water it was. We found pesticides. Where were they coming from? We found that the plants were using groundwater; the profile of pesticides in the bottles matched that in the groundwater. We understood more about the water use of these companies. Yet a question remained. Why did we find pesticides, and government not? So we looked at regulations and found that the science was about choosing the appropriate methodology of analysis. Government regulations were all about 'insensitive' detection methods, designed not to find what you looked for. We also learnt about the economics and technology of water treatment and how the management of the 'source' was critical. The more water was contaminated, the higher were the costs of treatment, the costs of ill heath.
But we were concerned about pesticide contamination. We wanted to understand more. So we did another study, this time on soft drinks. These companies also used groundwater. Our study helped to place on record that water was increasingly poisoned and even products like soft drinks, peddled through high value brand ambassadors, were unsafe.
New questions emerged. The cola giants challenged our study. They sent their street fighters turned college debaters who argued their drinks were "safe". Why? Because India used very low levels of pesticides on a per capita basis and contamination wasn't a problem. They even argued soft drinks were safe because there was even more pesticides in apples and milk. They talked about the acceptable daily intake (ADI) and said their drinks used only a small proportion of the ADI of each pesticide.
We understood regulation as setting the maximum residue levels (MRLs) of pesticides. If a product was in breach of its stipulated MRL, it was illegal or adulterated. This was how we understood 'safety'. But how wrong we were.
"The apple and milk has more pesticides" chant of cola companies made us dig deeper. We researched. We understood how the world defined safety of pesticide usage. Indeed, we began to understand that regulation of these small toxins was about regulating pesticides in our food. For this, regulators had to know what you and I were eating and how much. But more importantly, they had to know how much of a particular pesticide we could safely ingest over our lifetime. Then they had to ensure this safety threshold was not exceeded. This was the science, sociology and politics of ADI.
"All substances are poisons; the right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy". Modern food regulation is about determining what that right dose is in our daily diet.
The world awoke to pesticide contamination of food years ago. As early as 1953, a resolution at the World Health Assembly expressed concern about "the increasing use of various chemical substances in food". This inaugurated a process that led, two years later, to the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) being formed. JECFA's initial mandate was to review and set safety standards only for all food additives - it defined additives as "non-nutritive substances added intentionally to food, generally in small quantities to improve its appearance, flavour, texture or storage properties".
Later, it's mandate was broadened to include substances "unintentionally" introduced into food, such as pesticide and metal residues.
Then in 1961, this latter function of the JECFA was turned over to another body. The JMPR - the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues, which provides scientific advice to the Codex Alimentarius Commission on regulating pesticide residues in the global food trade - was established to direct global food standards for pesticide contamination. Today, while these agencies set the global framework for safety, nations develop their own standards to combat the risk pesticides put humans into. A particular process enables this to happen:
A Safety Archstone Called ADI
The archstone of managing this risk is a measure of safety called ADI, or acceptable daily intake. It is that amount of a pesticide we can ingest - daily, over a lifetime - without damaging health. It is expressed in relation to bodyweight (bw), so that safety levels for adults and children are variously calculated.
FIRST: Toxicity tests are done on animals, usually rats or dogs. The rats, or dogs, are given different amounts of a pesticide, and checked for a range of toxic effects, including birth defects, cancer, reproductive changes, neurotoxicity and harm to organs such as the kidney or liver.
The idea is to determine that limit till where a pesticide cannot cause harm: this is called NOAEL, or No Observable Adverse Effect Level. Sometimes, it is not possible to deduce this number. In such cases the safety mark is established at that point where the first sign of adverse effects appear. This is called LOAEL, or Lowest Observable Adverse Effect Level.
Both these measures indicate the long-term effect on health, or chronic toxicity. But pesticides are incredibly poisonous. Often, a single dose is lethally adverse. To tackle such circumstances, global agencies also establish safety limits for acute toxicity, exposure in the short term. Thus JMPR and the United States Environment Protection Authority (USEPA) set what is called the Acute Reference Dose (ARfD), the maximum residue that can be safely consumed at a meal or in a day. Acute toxicity is typically calculated from LD-50, literally a potent quantity of pesticide that can kill 50 per cent of test animals either through ingestion or through contact with skin.
NEXT: Scientists then extrapolate animal toxicity data on humans. They adjust it downward usually by a factor of 100: a division factor of 10 is used to allow for the possibility that humans are more sensitive; a further division factor of 10 is used to allow for differences between humans.
Nowadays, there is increasing concern that this safety factor leaves infants and children vulnerable to pesticide toxicity attack. In the US, for instance, health activists want a further safety factor of 10 for children - so that the toxicity data is adjusted downward by a factor of 1000 - especially for organophosphate pesticides. Now regulators have a number. But...
Today, ADI and ARfD are crucial tools to manage risk. But for them to be consistently effective, they need to be (a) constantly updated as the science improves; and (b) calculated on the basis of the latest, most credible data.
Consider, in this context, the vexing problem of how regulating agencies set ADI. The JMPR, for instance, uses information it receives from pesticide companies and from member nations. While the use of corporate data is invariably controversial, only those countries provide data that have a stake in pesticide production and export. Could these be reasons why the ADI that JMPR sets are higher (and therefore more lax) than those set by the USEPA, or in Australia? JMPR's 1999 ADI for chlorpyrifos is 0.01 mg/kg of bodyweight. That for the USEPA, set in the same year, is 100 times lower: 0.0001 mg/kg of bodyweight. Similarly, ADI set by the Food Standards Australia and new Zealand (ANZFA), set a decade before, is 30 times lower: 0.003 mg/kg of bodyweight.
A Study in Pure Negligence
Two legislations regulate pesticides in India - the Insecticide Act, 1968 (IA) under the Union ministry of agriculture; and the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 (PFA), under the Union ministry of health and family welfare. The former's provisions are enforced by the Central Insecticide Board (CIB) and Registration Committee (RC). The over 25-member strong CIB, headed by the Director General of Health Services, meets once in six months to advise on matters related to administering the insecticide act.
The RC is headed by the agriculture commissioner and meets once every month to register pesticides for use in India and for export. This it is supposed to do so after satisfying itself about a pesticide's efficacy and safety to human beings, animals and environment; relevant data to this end are collected from companies.
But - and this is where its regulatory teeth begin to fall off - they do not fix ADI of a pesticide to be registered, nor set MRLs on food commodities. In global practices, the agency registering the pesticide establishes ADI, sets MRLs and then ensures cumulative exposure is within the safety levels.
In stark contrast in India, a pesticide is registered without any of these mandatory safety regulations.
In fact, there is no legislative provision to link pesticide registration to setting MRLs. IA mandates registration, but PFA mandates MRLs. Such legislative blindness has ensured that, of the 180 pesticides currently registered, MRLs have been set only for 71. In other words, more than 60 per cent of pesticides currently registered have no MRLs.
In 2003, an effort was made to ensure that registration of a pesticide by the CIB would simultaneously require that the ministry of health fixed the MRL for that pesticide on different food. But after some discussion, the registration committee of CIB decided that the "fixation of MRL subsequent to supply to requisite data is a separate issue and linking this with registration will unnecessary delay registration." Clearly, the government wanted to quickly introduce pesticide - a 'development' imperative - rather than worrying about public health.
Moreover, the way in which MRLs are set under PFA further undermines safety. MRLs are set on the basis of recommendations made by the Pesticide Residues Sub-Committee of the Central Committee of Food Standards (CCFS), Union ministry of health. The CCFS meets once or twice a year, and standards are set on the basis of information supplied by government research institutions and companies. But nowhere in this tedious process does ADI come into play, again in stark contrast to global practice.
PFA is oblivious of ADI. The CCFS has no mandate to establish it. Thus, when CCFS develops MRLs, it never cross-checks exposure levels against ADI. In other words, the legal standards for pesticides in food commodities have no safety considerations built into them. Even if these products meet the MRLs there is no guarantee of safety, for there is no way to find the safety threshold in the absence of ADI.
Worse still, there is no communication between the two sets of nodal regulatory agencies created under IA and PFA. There is a gross mismatch between the pesticides the CIB recommends for use on a food commodity, and those for which MRLs have been set under PFA for the same commodity.
Take sugar cane. The CIB recommends 13 pesticides to be used. However, under PFA, MRLs for only 2 of the recommended pesticides have been established. Similarly in rice, 56 per cent of recommended pesticides have no MRLs; in wheat, 43 per cent have no MRLs; in mango, 44 per cent. In coffee, 80 per cent of recommended pesticides have no MRLs.
This leads to a bizarre situation. A farmer is 'recommended' a pesticide for a crop, and uses it for that crop. In so doing, he follows the law as laid down under IA. But suppose there is no MRL for that pesticide under PFA. This means the crop cannot legally contain any pesticide residue. Now, if this farmer's crop shows residues of the 'recommended' pesticide, he would be violating PFA provisions. One way or the other, he has committed an illegality.
In India, meaningless standards leads directly to toothless enforcement. The latter is the responsibility of state governments. In states, food inspectors are appointed. They are supposed to keep proper track of pesticide residues in food commodities. To this end, they send samples to state-run laboratories. 70 such laboratories exist. But so does rampant contamination in all kinds of food.
From time to time, these laboratories may find contamination. But they cannot act on it. In such cases, samples have to be sent to the Central Food Laboratories established under the PFA. Four such laboratories exist to verify whether contamination exists or not. This process is so tedious that enforcing standards are almost non-existent.
Monitoring: To What End?
Pesticide residue are monitored by the All India Coordinated Research Project on Pesticide Residues (AICRPPR) under the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). But its mandate is to research research; it cannot enforce standards. Nothing indicates its helplessness better than a survey it did on branded baby food and milk. The products were highly contaminated (see table below: No action taken so far); but all the AICRPPR did was to smugly proclaim it could merely publish the report. Till today, no action has been taken. There are still no pesticide residue standards for these products under PFA. The report's publication was also an exception; usually, AICRPPR residue monitoring data is treated as a national secret, and kept tightly under wraps.
In sum, the regulatory framework for pesticides in the country has nothing to do with human safety or food safety. The standard-setting agencies are completely cross-eyed. The regulating agency supposed to enforce MRLs does not monitor residues. The monitoring agency that watches out for contamination cannot regulate the poisonous presence of pesticides in food.
Is this merely a classic case of non-accountability? Isn't this pure criminal negligence?
This article is provided courtesy of Down to Earth Magazine, a publication of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, India. Their websites are www.cseindia.org and www.downtoearth.org.in.