Krepaloo Sunghoon: “Bio agriculture is impossible in our country”

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After publication of Weekly’s recent cover story on the use of pesticides in the agricultural industry and the dangers to consumers, Weekly speaks to Krepaloo Sunghoon, secretary general of the Small Planters’ Association, for the other side of the story. Sunghoon naturally defends the planters and attributes any possible excesses to ignorance and lack of help. The outcome does not however appease our worries about what goes into our bodies.

Lots of people nowadays are complaining about the high price of vegetables. It must be one of the highest in the world! 
I agree with you. If we take 20 November 2019 as a starting point and we compare the prices of vegetables then with prices in January and mid-February, vegetables are twice as expensive. This is something that happens every year. 

And should we just watch it happen?
No. There has to be a solution because if we do nothing then vegetables will just get more and more expensive. Not just that, but certain types of vegetables might just no longer be available on the market. 

Why are we in this situation in the first place?
There are a number of reasons for this. We know that every year, this problem occurs – vegetable prices skyrocket – but so far, we have not taken any steps to redress the situation. Secondly, we don’t have the capacity to store vegetables and thirdly, we know we have entered a situation where the climate and environment are changing and that the varieties of vegetables grown are struggling to adapt to these changes. We have entered a serious situation…

Who do you mean by ‘we’? 
Everybody: planters, policymakers, consumers and resellers. 

What can the consumers do? 
The consumers too are responsible. 

How are the consumers responsible? 
They should be more discerning. Let’s take the example of potatoes and onions. The Agricultural Marketing Board (AMB) sells potatoes for Rs16 a pound but the consumers prefer to buy their potatoes from merchants at Rs25 or Rs30 a pound and onions at Rs40, instead of Rs17 at the AMB! Why does the consumer not exercise his right to buy his onions and potatoes right at the source? If the consumer finds that the prices are too high in one place, he should look elsewhere too and then compare the prices.

You cannot expect the consumers to look everywhere and then buy onions and potatoes at one place and other vegetables from another. They don’t have time for that, do they? 
I agree but we want consumers to help us in this bid to put pressure on the government. Also, some consumers buy their vegetables from random people selling them on the street. When you do that, you are risking your health and your family’s. The person selling vegetables on the street has bought them from another person or has simply stolen the produce and is selling it on the street. You have no guarantee that the vegetables are safe for consumption.

Coming back to the initial question, why is the price so high?
The problem is that when tomatoes are selling for Rs120 a pound, you end up with lots of planters growing the same thing and that causes shortages of other vegetables. That’s because of a lack of information. The state has all the information and all the institutions. If they could simply tell the planters, “Look, we have plenty of planters growing tomatoes but not enough pipangaille”, for example, planters would be armed with that information and be able to make smarter decisions about what to plant. So we end up with lots of planters who have to let their produce rot because it is not economically viable to harvest it. It would cost less money to destroy the crop than to transport it to sell. Also, with variations in the weather, we are seeing our harvests declining. A plant that previously produced six tomatoes now produces just two or three. Normally, we need 300 tonnes of tomatoes a week. Now, there are less than 50 tonnes coming to the market a week. It is because of this that you see high prices. The varieties that are grown cannot adapt. 

Who decides what varieties to plant? Is it not the planters themselves? 

So whose fault is that? 
We plant varieties that are available on the market. In 2018, the government came up with three new varieties of seeds that could tolerate more heat. In 2019, lots of planters sowed that and saw that they could adapt. At the end of 2019, however, the planters wanted more of those seeds but could not find any. We don’t have a seed bank where the planter can go to buy seeds at any time, so they have to buy them from abroad and, very often, they cannot adapt to the Mauritian climate. 

Why can’t you manage your own seed bank? 
Fifty years ago, all planters produced their own seeds, but nowadays big corporates come and tell us that one variety of seeds is better than another and will give bigger yields. So lots of planters adopted these new varieties but with time, we found that these kinds of seeds require lots of fertiliser and water that we are already struggling with. Another problem is that a lot of them are hybrid varieties so once you grow them, you cannot get seeds to plant again. In Mauritius, less than 25 per cent of crops we have are those that we can produce seeds from and replant later like calabash, pumpkin or okra. The rest are all hybrid varieties. You buy the seeds and plant them, but you cannot then take the seeds and replant them. You have to buy the seeds again. 

A more serious problem for the consumer are the pesticides and chemicals that planters are abusing and that are killing people every day. 
There is some truth to that, but some myth too. Let me talk about the truth first: every month, the Ministry of Agro-Industry publishes a report on tests they carry out on 50 or so types of crops that people eat regularly. There are maybe two or three that have high pesticide residue than is allowed. There is also the problem that lots of planters find that after they spray their plants with herbicide in the morning, the crops are stolen at night and put on the market, thus not respecting the seven days that the herbicides need to go through the plant. A planter cannot sell his/her products before seven days after applying the pesticide. If a thief comes and steals the vegetables the same or the next day after the planter applied the pesticide and the stolen vegetables are put on the market immediately, then those who buy them are eating poison. That’s why I say you cannot just buy vegetables from anybody but only from people you know. 

If I buy from a merchant, how will I know where the vegetables really come from? 
That’s why I am saying that consumers must make sure that if they are paying for something, they are getting a good product in return. 

But how would I know that the product I am buying is a good product or one full of poison? 
You wouldn’t know. That’s why we need a system that allows you to track produce. If you want to buy vegetables and ask where they come from, the merchant should be able to answer you. That’s just like anything else. The merchant should be able to tell you where he sources his produce from. Today, there is nothing in the law about this. So, very often what happens is that a thief just comes and sells the vegetables to a merchant for, say, 50 cents cheaper and then the merchants sells them to you and you end up eating poison. That’s the problem. This is not the case all the time, but it is a problem. Theft causes a 20 per cent loss to the planter. 

But don’t tell me that only the stolen vegetables are not fit for consumption. That can’t be true…
There is another issue as well. If your plants catch a disease and you call the agronomist from the Ministry of Agro-Industry for help, very often, he is not available, doesn’t show up or comes seven or eight days later. What happens in the meantime is that the planter has to go to somebody who sells chemicals. Now that chemical seller is a businessman. He sells you as many chemicals as he can. Then planters resort to these cocktails, putting anything to try to get rid of the problem. That residue then stays and ends up on the consumers’ plate. What the planters need is the right information at the right time. 

So what you are saying is that planters poison us out of ignorance, are you? 
Yes, the planter lacks information. Pesticides are very expensive. A drum can cost up to Rs5,000 and putting it on the crop can cost another Rs500. So a planter would never put more pesticide than is needed because it’s a big expense. Secondly, the first person affected would be himself. 

What you are saying is not totally accurate. I know of planters who have one spot to plant their own vegetables and another for the market. They themselves don’t eat the poison they sell! 
Give me one day and I can take you to any field you want to see whether this is the case. 

I can take you there myself. I have had first-hand experience with this… 
It could be one person. Let’s decide one day and go to the field. And we can see whether planters in any region you choose really have one field for themselves and another for everybody else. What you are saying is almost impossible. 

Why is it impossible?
If a person is a planter, he can have a small garden. Eighty-five per cent of planters eat what they themselves are growing. If anything, they eat the vegetables that don’t look good and keep the good ones to sell. But to dispel any doubt, one day on a weekend I will be available to go to any region you choose. You choose any planter and we will go and see whether he really has two fields. 

So if the planters respect the norms and don’t use too many pesticides, how come the amount of pesticides imported is increasing? These are facts that you can check yourself.
The reality is different. I heard a minister say once that we bring in X amount of pesticides and then divide it by the total population and then just say that that means that each Mauritian consumes Y amount of pesticides. It’s not like that. Half the pesticides coming in go into other industries, exports or in paints and so on. The remaining half is divided between that being used to kill rats, cockroaches in hotels, houses and so on. Then another bit is used in cane cultivation. There are 70,000 hectares under cultivation; planters only cultivate 6,000 hectares out of that. Pesticides are a bad tool but a tool that’s used for production. The only thing that can be done is to educate people, look for alternatives and we are seeing climate change that brings in other types of pests so we need to find pesticides that are less dangerous or organic pesticides. 

L’express had a sample of vegetables and fruits analysed and found that some had 10 times the authorised level. How do you react to that? 
It depends on where they were bought.

Not off the street. The samples were bought at the bazaar. 
Are you saying that there are no stolen vegetables in the bazaar? Of course they can make their way to the bazaar because there is no protection or control, unfortunately.

So if we find pesticides in the vegetables, they are stolen and if we don’t test them and we don’t know, then they were planted by planters. Does that sound fair to you? 
No. Nearly 20 per cent of what is planted is stolen. The problem again is a lack of information. If a planter does not know how to fight a crop disease, then in ignorance, he might go for a cocktail. 

Whatever the cause, the result is the same, isn’t it? 
Yes. It’s true. 

It’s true that planters are poisoning us? 
No, that’s a generalisation. That’s not good. Look, in the beginning I said that as a consumer you have to see where the produce comes from and then there are things that you can do as well like put them in cold water for 30 minutes. That removes the pesticide and reduces its impact on your health. But when you say that vegetables are poison and that planters are killing people, that’s a generalisation. 

Most planters?
A few perhaps but not most. I mean the Ministry of Agro-Industry comes up with reports published on its websites; we can just look at that. Out of 50 vegetables, there may be one or two that perhaps have excessive residues. 

The problem is that the quantity of pesticides authorised within Mauritius is much higher than the standards in the rest of the world. Sometimes 10 times higher. 
We have the same standards… but the yardstick is different for each type of vegetable.

The percentage authorised in Mauritius is higher…

The average allowed is no more than 0.3 per cent for all types of fruit and vegetables, here in Mauritius, the average allowed can go up to 4 per cent.
I don’t know if things have changed but we used a codex that’s used internationally. I agree that whatever we sell has to be safe for the consumer. 
I know that the lab follows international norms. They do not decide on their own. 

But assuming the ministry finds out that a planter is poisoning consumers, are there any sanctions? Can you tell me of a single planter that has been punished? 
We have the Pesticide Use Act and it’s the ministry that makes sure that planters follow the rules laid down in it. If they find that a planter has been abusing the use of pesticides, they give him a warning. If the planter does that again, he is fined or jailed. This is in the law. 

That’s the theory. Has there been any planter who has been warned or sent to prison? 
As yet, nobody. 

That means the law is not being applied. 
Or it means that there is nobody abusing it. 

Except that we know that there are some vegetables that are showing higher levels of residue but nobody is being sanctioned. Is that normal? 
I know that there are some planters who have received warnings. A planter growing bitter gourd in Goodlands had residue levels higher than allowed, so he got a warning. Not just that but they monitored him for two or three weeks until things returned to normal. There are corrective measures that are in place. That said, there has to be a study to compare the situation of residue levels being found five or six years ago with today to find out whether the situation is improving. 

It cannot be diminishing if we are importing more chemicals, can it? 
Just because we import more does not mean that we are using more on vegetables. 

It is an indicator nonetheless. 
It’s an indication of a lot of things. I don’t have the exact information but I know that 50 per cent of that is used in industry. We have to see for what purpose chemical imports have increased. 

Are chemicals used in greenhouses too?
No they are not used. Greenhouses are covered to prevent vectors like flies and other pests from going in. 

So are vegetables grown in a greenhouse safe? 
Yes, they are, but a new report says that plants grown in a greenhouses and not in the ground are artificial because they don’t get all the nutrients they are supposed to. 

To return to the subject of planters, the solutions you are proposing are not very practical, that we all must have personalised vegetable sellers, know where the vegetables are coming from…  The merchant is buying all this at an auction. He is not worried about where the vegetables are coming from but rather looking at his pocket. So how will you ever know where your vegetables come from? 
You have been to many countries. If you go to an auction in the UK, does everybody know where the vegetables come from? 

But there, you don’t have the right to poison people. 
No, there too this problem exists. 

There you have controls; here we don’t. 
But we are starting to now. We have to feed 1.2 million people in Mauritius and 1.5 million tourists. To feed them, we have to produce 150,000 tonnes of vegetables. And people here can only spend between Rs500 and Rs600 a week on vegetables. So, we planters have to supply vegetables of good quality at an affordable price. If we don’t produce enough, then we risk our future generations. This is a difficult equation. Over the last three years, we have started certifying vegetables to close the global gap between the world and what Mauritius produces and to close the gap, we have marked four stages and named them maurigap1, maurigap2, maurigap3 and so on. Maurigap1 is coming up with and applying all the rules. We have 400 planters who have been trained and are producing vegetables according to norms such as what kind of soil to use and so on. So that’s happening gradually. So when you go to the market, you find some products labelled maurigap. There is a difference between maurigap products and traditional products in terms of price so consumers can slowly start buying certified products. So over time, uncertified products will disappear from the market. In the meantime, the consumer may have to pay more for better quality. 

What about bio products? 
We are a small market, but even there we have five or six per cent of consumers who buy bio products. 

But here, what’s sold as bio is not really bio. 
In Mauritius, we cannot grow bio vegetables. We are a small country and we have strong winds and a soil that makes that difficult. A strong wind can bring all sorts of contaminants to the field or, if there is a factory nearby, the breeze can take contaminants to other fields. Right now, the only thing bio is goyaves de chine. If we stretch our definition of bio a bit, it can include coconuts, breadfruit and avocados. However, these cannot be certified as bio. 

No vegetables? 
What I am saying is that real bio agriculture is impossible in our country. It would be very difficult. 


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