Divert, deny, dismiss and damn

What a line of attack! PepsiCo, in its advertisements to deny that it had pesticides in its drinks, said that there were more pesticides in tea, eggs, rice and apples. Coca-Cola, in its defence, has similarly argued that as everything in India is contaminated, its drinks are safe. They say this is being done to target them, because they are big brands and us multinationals. On the other hand, the pesticide industry, in its public response, wants the focus not to be on pesticides but on heavy metals and other contaminants. They also say that they are being singled out.

What should we understand from all this: one, we should not target us companies, not target the pesticide industry and in fact, not target any particular industrial sector but keep the issue at the level of generalities. Two, we should not try and fix any specific problem, like pesticides in soft drinks through improved regulations. But we should keep our work focussed on everything that is bad — from pesticides in milk to heavy metals in soil. Three, we should not try to get the government to set regulations for soft drinks because they were found to have pesticides. We should instead try and fix something else.

Let’s put this spin-doctoring aside. We know this is the first step of a game-plan: to divert attention from what needs to be done or to feed on our part helplessness and part cynicism that everything is so bad, so why bother.

Let’s focus on what needs to be done. There is no doubt that water is increasingly contaminated with all kinds of bacteria and that dirty water kills more babies than anything else in our country, which is clearly and absolutely unacceptable.

Worse, we have a double burden — of both pollutants and diseases. So there are biological contaminants mixed with trace chemical toxins from the modern industrial world — they include arsenic and mercury to hormones and pesticides to even more deadly dioxins and furans.

All this contamination has to be challenged. All this has to be minimised so that it does not jeopardise our health. All this will have to be done urgently and together. But all this can only be done with a clear strategy and prioritisation of action so that we can bring deliberate change.

Let’s take the issue of water and food safety. The government’s own research shows that raw agricultural commodities — from milk to vegetables — are often contaminated with pesticides. We also know that regulations for pesticides in raw agricultural commodities are set, but are lax and not enforced. Therefore, the strategy is to ensure that we can revamp regulations that govern the safe use of pesticides.

The agenda for reform here is manifold: to ensure that no pesticide is registered without the setting of a maximum residue level, which defines what is safe residue in our food; to ensure that the sum of all toxins are kept within an overall safety threshold — called the acceptable daily intake by toxicologists and to ensure that there are credible and effective ways of enforcing these standards.

In this we can learn from governments across the world. For instance, the uk government has a policy for “naming and shaming” suppliers of food that is contaminated. Our government can also check milk and vegetables on a random basis and make the data it collects available publicly.

In addition, it will be important to work with farmers who overuse and misuse pesticides, because of the lack of information supplied by the industry. Remember that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has virtually abdicated its role of agricultural extension to private pesticide and seed industry interests.

But like all our other double-triple-burdens, we cannot take the step-by-step approach. The industrial world first cleaned up its water of bacteria, then pesticides, then heavy metals and is now dealing with tinier and even more modern toxins like hormones and antibiotics. We have all of that in our food and water.

We also do not have the luxury of first cleaning agricultural raw material, then building our processed food industry. We will have to clean both ends of the food chain — the farm and the fork. We will have to do it together.

In all this we know that diversion is just one of the ploys. The second is to deny. This is where ‘science’ becomes a handy weapon. Modern science fails us. Even though it has created modern toxins, it is slow on generating knowledge about the impact of these toxins and pollutants on our bodies and our environment. Take climate change, take tobacco or even pesticides. The polluters want ‘conclusive’ and ‘incontrovertible’ evidence that there is cause and effect. We the victims have to prove our science.

The third tactic is to dismiss: your science is not good, it is not validated or peer reviewed. The health minister did exactly this when he used a half-baked report to try and discredit our laboratory and our work on soft drinks and pesticides.

It did not matter that the same laboratory, its equipment and methodology had been examined and endorsed by the highest parliamentary committee. It did not matter, because the purpose was not science but to use its power to discredit and to dismiss.

The fourth step in the polluter’s game-plan is to damn and to destroy. Let’s see what the future holds.

-- — Sunita Narain