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BW Businessworld

Agriculture: Some Pest Killers Have Stings

Spurious pesticides make up almost a quarter of the market, exposing farmers, their harvest and the environment to harmful side-effects. Does the law have the teeth it needs to fight the fakes?

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No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal,” said the French explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau. Plants too like dolphins, are always at their best in their genuine habitats and when nourished and protected by genuine nutrients.

Sub-standard, counterfeit or spurious agrochemical inputs, like pesticides for instance, often kill more than pests. They harm the harvest, the soil and the environment, not to speak of farmers and farm hands tending the crop.  “The bigger the population, the bigger the issue,” says D’Arcy Quinn, Director, Anti-Counterfeiting at CropLife International, Switzerland. It is well-known that agrochemicals are very important for better crop yield. It is also inevitable that with the rapid rise in population, use of agrochemicals is bound to increase. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) expects the turnover of the Indian agrochemical industry to double to $8.1 billion by 2025.

The problem is that a significant quantity of agro-chemicals (particularly pesticides) in the Indian market are not genuine, implying that they are ‘counterfeit’, ‘spurious’, ‘adulterated’ or ‘sub-standard’ me-toos of the certified bug annihilators or soil  nutrients. Spurious insecticides are either ineffective in destroying pests or do not kill them efficiently.

Some of these formulations do work as pesticides, but  also leave traces of by-products that significantly harm the soil and the environment. Such chemicals not only harm the crop, but also impair soil fertility. Spurious agrochemicals are responsible for the losses of not just farmers, but also producers of genuine agrochemicals and the government, which loses revenue from the sales of the counterfeit versions of the real farm inputs.

A joint meeting of a FAO-WHO panel on pesticides management was informed of the increasing menace of counterfeit pesticides, estimated to be five per cent to seven per cent of the products in Europe and 20 per cent to 30 per cent of pesticides marketed  in developing countries. Apart from causing economic losses to the legitimate pesticide industry, spurious pesticides threaten the health and livelihoods of farmers. They also put the food chain and consumers at risk and harm the environment. CropLife is concerned that counterfeit products do not get the attention they deserve in many countries. Quinn told BW Businessworld that sale of spurious agrochemicals was in reality an international menace. “The major agrochemical groups are also doing great in handling this issue in India,” he said.  

Lack of awareness

Spurious pesticides find an easy access to the market because farmers are often not able to differentiate between genuine and counterfeit agrochemicals. Supply chain inefficiencies leave loopholes wide open for fake farm inputs to slip into the market through the influence of distributors and retailers, who seldom get booked. Even though a rather stringent law on counterfeits does exist, enforcing it has proved challenging.

The Insecticides Act, 1968 and the Insecticides Rules 1971 regulate the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides. The Act uses the term “misbranded” to describe counterfeit, spurious or sub-standard pesticides. The Union government registers pesticides after taking into account parameters like  chemistry, bio-efficacy, toxicity, packaging and processing. Under the Insecticides Act 1968, monitoring the quality of pesticides is the shared responsibility of both the central and state governments. Almost 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the farmers have scant knowledge of agrochemical products and their usage, according to UPL, a global giant in agrochemicals. Farmers are just about waking up to the benefits of agrochemical applications with the awareness drive of the Indian government and product demonstrations from agri-input companies.

The agrochemical industry is therefore, virtually treading on virgin ground in India and the potentials of improving agricultural yield with the proper application of agrochemicals is immense. With improvement in both the quality and quantity of farm yields, agrochemicals have the potential to jack up profits from farming by anywhere between 12 per cent and 27 per cent. (Please see chart: Agro inputs can boost farm productivity by as much as 90 %).

President of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), C. D. Mayee, believes that the right use of genuine agrochemicals can increase productivity by 20 per cent, which is not happening because the market is teeming with fake or substandard products. The Indian farmers’ ignorance of the use of agrochemicals makes them an easy prey for spurious and counterfeit products, suspects Quinn.

A study conducted by the Tata Strategic Management Group (TSMG) some years ago pointed to the necessity of crop protection chemicals in times when the area under agriculture is shrinking, while the population is rising, increasing the demand for food. At such a juncture, loss of crops from pest attacks and diseases are avoidable, necessitating the use of crop protection chemicals.

The fakes

There is, however, an increasing concern about the menace of spurious agrochemicals. The TSMG study revealed that spurious products worth Rs 3,475 crore were sold in the Indian market annually. Among the victims of this market of fakes are producers of genuine agrochemicals. R. G. Agarwal, Chairman of Dhanuka Agrotech says, “The recent study by Ficci has shown that the current market of non-genuine/ illegal pesticides is Rs 3,200 crore ($525 million) which constitutes 25 per cent of the total domestic market for agrochemicals in India by value and 30 per cent by volume. K. V.  Subbarao, Managing Director, South Asia, Corteva Agriscience too concurs with the numbers.  

Says Agarwal, “Unmonitored use of these toxic chemicals has led to soil degradation, ground and surface water contamination, endangering export of grain and horticulture products from India.” A study by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs shows that about 58 per cent of agricultural inputs in use are fake. “I am afraid counterfeit and illegal agrochemical products in the Indian market is increasing year by year,” says Subbarao.

Use of spurious agrochemicals is most rampant in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Use of counterfeit pesticides has spread across India in the agrarian parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

So, while India is a lucrative market and a potential destination for agrochemicals producers, it is also a risky market, where fake and harmful look-alikes compete with genuine pesticides, fertilisers and soil nutrients. Agrochemical giants, both domestic and multinationals, are tempted to set up manufacturing hubs in India for export markets because of low processing costs and the availability of cheap labour. Indian players in the agrochemicals market have the added advantage of the availability of technically skilled labour within the country and the opportunity for contract manufacturing and research.

“Being illiterate, farmers are usually unable to differentiate between original and spurious products and are often duped. This is not only affecting our sales but is also posing a challenge to the farmers’ trust in genuine products that have gained popularity and recognition over the years.” says Maycee. “I had 20 such samples tested from the National Research Centre for Grapes in Pune,” he recalls. “Nineteen of the 20 samples were found containing various pesticides and there were cocktails of seven pesticides in one sample.”

The way forward

Ashok Dalwai, CEO, National Rainfed Area Authority, under the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, says insecticide samples are regularly analysed at 69 State Pesticides Testing Laboratories (SPTLs) and at the two Regional Pesticides Testing Laboratories (RPTLs). The Union government has established two RPTLs in Kanpur and Chandigarh for the convenience of states that do not have pesticides testing laboratories.

“In the last three years (i.e. 2015-16 to 2017-18) 1,92,910 pesticide samples have been analysed,  of which 4,949 (2.56 per cent) samples have been found misbranded,” says Dalwai. The Insecticide Act of 1968 mandates that Insecticide Inspectors visit all establishments within their jurisdiction three times a year and satisfy themselves that the conditions of the licence for selling pesticides has been complied with. A. K. Dikshit, a former head of the agriculture chemical division of the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), says CIB&RC data shows that barely 75 inspectors have been visible in the pesticides market, of the 4,669 registered as Insecticide Inspectors.  

Rues Siraj Hussain, who has been a Secretary in the Union Ministry of Agriculture, “It (the wide use of spurious pesticides) is a highly neglected issue. Even when I was a part of policy making, it was not a top priorty”. The Act is enforced by both the Centre and the states.Agriculture being a state subject is no doubt, among the stumbling blocks to a holistic approach to the problem.

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