Pesticides: The silent killer ever-present in our food

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Data from 2014 suggests that, among African countries, Mauritius was ranked ninth in terms of pesticide usage – with 27.19kg per hectare. This is a high level of pesticide usage, given the smaller agricultural area the island has compared to bigger African countries. How far have we come since the Use of Pesticides Act was introduced in 2018?  Weekly investigates.

Over the years, there has been growing concern over the harmful effects of pesticides on consumers’ health. In fact, our sister publication, l’express, published a series of investigative articles back in January 2016 to sound the alarm on pesticide levels going beyond the Maximum Residue Limits (MRL) set by the European Commission. They carried out an investigation by collecting crop samples from various parts of Mauritius. The analysis showed that one out of five samples had pesticide levels that went beyond the limit deemed safe for consumption. A total of 45 different crops were analysed. In carrots, they found the presence of Profenofos at more than four times the acceptable rate. This insecticide can cause nausea and dizziness and, with very high exposure, can cause lasting damage to the respiratory system. Another herbicide the investigation highlighted was the presence of Diuron in pineapples at four-and-a-half times above the standard limit. Some of the chronic effects attributed to high doses of this herbicide include growth retardation, anaemia and increased mortality. 

After publication of the articles, the minister of agro-industry and food security at the time, Mahen Seeruttun, reacted by saying that the overuse of these products may be the result of a lack of knowledge on how to use these chemicals and the mixture of substances with the wrong dosage. Speaking to Weekly, Kripalloo Sunghoon, secretary of the Small Planters Association, also highlighted that there is a lack of knowledge among planters about the use of pesticides. “Sometimes, when planters find some of their crops infested by insects, they use a cocktail of pesticides to kill them. Unknowingly, they are also losing money by spraying more pesticides,” he said. However, this is only the beginning of the problem.

Based on data from Statistics Mauritius, a decrease in land use for agriculture was noted as from 2018. The area of food crops harvested decreased by 1.7 per cent from 7,780 hectares in 2017 to 7,656 in 2018. Likewise, the production of food crops also saw a 9.2 per cent decrease from 106,621 tonnes in 2017 to 96,847 tonnes in 2018. With a fall in land use and yield, the amount of pesticides imported in Mauritius should have seen a big decrease. On the contrary, it has seen an increase. In 2011, 2,223 tonnes of pesticides were imported and, in 2016, that number increased to 2,384 tonnes. By 2018, 2,587 tonnes of pesticides were recorded to have been imported. However, it should also be noted that not all pesticides end in agricultural farming in Mauritius. “The effectiveness of pesticides then and now is not the same. Planters are given bio pesticides which are less effective in killing worms and other insects. Therefore planters tend to use more,” explained Sunghoon. However, for Suttyhudeo Tengur, president of the Association for the Protection of the Environment and Consumers (APEC), it is difficult to test the efficiency of these pesticides and their impact on consumers and the environment. For Sunghoon, a lack of labour is another factor that has led to this increase. “Manpower has decreased. In the past, planters would remove wild grass and weeds by hand. With reduced manpower, planters resort to using herbicides to kill wild grass.” Sunghoon also cited climate change, hence the change in weather patterns, as another reason for the increased use of pesticides.

When planters use more chemicals on their crops, consumers suffer from certain health problems over time. Many researchers have tried to establish a link between pesticides and cancer and some suggest a possible connection with a number of cancers such as pancreatic, lung and skin cancers. Studies carried out to understand the effects of pesticides and childhood cancer also show a possible connection with leukaemia. In 2017, the then-health minister, Anwar Husnoo, raised the issue of pesticide poisoning in parliament by citing that “each year, a person unintentionally ingests, on average, two kilos of pesticides.” According to Husnoo, 136 patients were hospitalised for pesticide poisoning in 2017 alone. No other data on the number of cases is available for 2018 and 2019 and “unfortunately, the case of food poisoning through pesticides and insecticides will always remain present. There is no control over this issue,” said Tengur.

The following year, in 2018, the Use of Pesticides Act was passed. The main objective of this bill was to regulate, control and monitor the importation and use of pesticides on certain fruits, plants, seeds and vegetables in order to minimise the risks to human health and the environment. As part of the bill, the ministry created the Pesticides Regulatory Office. Its main aim is to collect samples across Mauritius and measure the MRL over a period of time. On average, one to four samples were identified by the Pesticides Regulatory Office as exceeding the MRL, notably tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce. “Having four samples out of a batch of 40 exceeding the MRL is a lot. Even one sample that exceeds the limit is a lot,” explains Sunghoon. The European legislation on MRLs states that a default limit of 0.01 mg/kg can be applied to pesticides. In Mauritius, the MRLs range from 0.01 mg/kg to 4 mg/kg for certain pesticides.

According to the act, if a planter is found growing crops that exceed the MRL, a warning is first issued. The act provides for the ability to sue a planter who refuses to comply with the MRL and he may be liable to a penalty ranging from Rs5,000 to Rs25,000. Moreover, the offending planter may also be sentenced to one year in prison. Since the introduction of the act, a few changes have been noticeable, such as the monthly tests on MRL residues. However, despite this, the test reports still show samples with excess pesticide residues – indicating that planters are still getting away with overusing pesticides. No official data on the number of fines or arrests of these planters are on record. Concrete changes regarding tighter regulations or setting a default residue limit similar to the EU’s still seem to be far from happening anytime soon. Until then, consumers are left with no choice but to resort to washing and peeling fruits and vegetables, fully aware of the poison present in their food. As of now, no research has proved whether organic crops are any more nutritious than conventional ones.

Is hydroponic food safer?

So what does the future of agriculture in Mauritius hold? Many are turning towards hydroponic food or hydroculture. In 1996, the Agricultural Research and Extension Unit (AREU) began research work on hydroponics to evaluate this type of farming method and to assess the kind of crops that can be grown. Hydroponics involves the process of growing plants by using mineral nutrient solutions in sand, gravel or liquid, without using soil. Tomatoes currently represent 65 per cent of the hydroponic market in Mauritius followed by peppers, melons and lettuce. Around 330 farmers engaged in hydroponics have been identified across the island, but the main disadvantage of this farming method is its high initial and operating costs. Hydroponics can yield up to 10 times more produce compared to soil-based farming on the same area of land. This can be a positive solution for a country like Mauritius where there is continuous loss of agricultural land due to urbanisation and industrialisation. All hydroponic production is protected by insect-proof netting and traps. Although pesticides are not required in this form of farming, nitrogen is still an essential component for plant growth, which can be very dangerous when present at high levels. Currently, produce grown in-house is said to be certified organic. “There has been concern over hydroponics lately. Some say the method of growing crops without soil is unnatural and cannot be certified organic,” said Sunghoon. Planters have different views on hydroponics and, unfortunately for consumers, they are always caught at the crossroads.

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