Monday, August 21, 2006

How to score a self-goal!, August 13, 2006

Truly, we are a wondrous land! In a country where two thirds of the children are undernourished, where 70 percent of the people cannot access safe sanitation and 65 infants die out of a thousand born, we are seriously debating the pesticide levels in a product that is probably the safest in the world from a pesticide perspective. Sadly, the controversy has created a scare in a nation which has among the lowest pesticide residues in its food chain. Indian diets contain roughly 18 percent of acceptable daily intake levels of pesticide versus Western diets which have 40 to 50 percent, according to international experts. The reason is that our diets are extensively vegetarian; and meat inherently has higher pesticide levels via the grains ingested by animals in the food chain.

If we are seriously concerned with pesticides in Indian diets, we ought to begin with tea. According to European norms (EU), tea contains 187,300 times the pesticide than water used in colas. If hypothetically our colas had exceeded allowable levels by thirty times, I could still drink 6200 glasses of cola and I would have less pesticide in my body than a cup of tea. The same goes for other foods. EU norms allow apples to have 154,120 times the pesticide than water; bananas to have 95,220 times; milk 7140 times. So, soft drinks are among the safest products we consume from the pesticide perspective. This doesn’t mean that our other foods are not safe. Nor is our food chain polluted—an unfortunate impression created by the media. It means that we do not live in an ideal world free of pests and pesticides.

I am generally a critic of our government, but in this case I give it credit. It has fixed water standards which are equal to the highest norms in the world. Since water in soft drinks conforms to these norms, it is probably safer to drink a Pepsi in Kerala than in Kentucky. The government is also now working on sugar norms and testing a protocol for finished soft drinks. In the end, governments understand that multinational companies have to maintain high standards because they have too much to lose. News travels quickly and a disaster in one country can harm a company’s image and sales around the world. Hence, the Indian government wants to do its own tests. The last time around government data showed six times lower pesticide levels than CSE’s tests.

Our state politicians have fallen into a trap. They think that by banning colas they have won cheap votes. People, however, will soon realise that they have been taken for a ride. Already the people of Kerala are questioning, how can you ban colas and allow the sale of liquor and cigarettes? Eventually, everyone has lost in this silly business. Our nation has been unfairly smeared for high pesticide in our food chain. Our exports of food products will lose the trust of international customers. Tourists will say, “If I can’t drink a safe cola, how can I eat anything in India?” Foreign investors will be reluctant to invest in a country which does not observe the rule of law in closing factories. All NGOs have got a bad name by these smear tactics. The environmental movement has been hurt. This is sad because we need a strong civil society to take on the real problems of India. Finally, media has been tarnished by its lack of application. We have truly scored a self-goal!

gurcharandas@vsnl.com

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