Regulating Pesticide Residues in food

G V Ramanjaneyulu1

Today, our farming and food is full of toxins and synthetic substances in the name of ‘modern agriculture’ and a thrust to increase yields at any cost. The cumulative and synergistic effects of all these products cannot even be estimated by the producers and users. Hundreds of pesticides have been registered in the country over the years even as the government takes years to ban or restrict a handful of chemicals every decade or so.

Some amounts of pesticides appear as Residues in the crop products that they are used on at the time of harvest and point of consumption. The amount of such residues varies across crops, for different pesticides and locations.

Perusal of the residue data on pesticides in samples of fruits, vegetables, cereals, pulses, grains, wheat flour, oils, eggs, meat, fish, poultry, bovine milk, butter and cheese in India indicates their presence in sizable amounts.

In India, the production and use of pesticides are regulated by a few laws which mainly lay down the institutional mechanisms by which such regulation would take place – in addition to procedures for registration, licensing, quality regulation etc., these laws also try to lay down standards in the form of Maximum Residue Limits, Average Daily Intake levels etc.. Through these mechanisms, chemicals are sought to be introduced into farmers’ fields and agricultural crop production without jeopardizing the environment or consumer health.

PFA Regulations on Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs)

Earlier, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare regulated MRLs of pesticide and agrochemical in food products through the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA), 1955 as amended. However, with the implementation of Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, the PFA rules are being phased into the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2010. The new Act authorizes the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to “specify the limits for use of food additives, crop contaminants, pesticide residues, residues of veterinary drugs, heavy metals, processing aids, mycotoxins, antibiotics and pharmacological active substances and irradiation of food.” The existing MRLs on pesticides and agrochemicals specified in the PFA are incorporated in the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2010 – Chapter 8, pages 531-548. MRLs are listed by chemical product for specific food items / commodities. However, in some cases, tolerance limits are established for more generic categories of food (i.e. for Carbaryl, “other vegetables” have an MRL of 5.0 parts per million.

Regulations on Use of Pesticides/Agrochemicals

The manufacture, sale, import, export and use of pesticides are regulated by Ministry of Agriculture through the Insecticides Act, 1968 and the Insecticides Rules, 1971. All insecticides (including fungicides and herbicides per Section 3e) are listed in the "Schedule," and must undergo a registration process with the Central Insecticides Board & Registration Committee (CIB&RC). As of September 14, 2010, there are 228 registered insecticides under Section 9(3) of the Insecticides Act, 1968: Registered products must be clearly labeled to indicate composition, active ingredient(s), target pest(s), recommended dosage, agricultural or household use, as well as any cautionary safety information. But most of the times, these cautions are written in a small font that they cannot be read.

Then, there are other institutions like Central Insecticides Laboratory and Insecticides Inspectors to ensure that the quality of insecticides sold in the market is as per norms. The Central Insecticides Laboratory is also meant to analyse samples of materials for pesticide residues as well as to determine the efficacy and toxicity of insecticides. This laboratory is also responsible for ensuring the conditions of registration.

As per this legislation, the central government will register the pesticides whereas the marketing licenses are allowed by state governments. The general enforcement of the legislation is by the state government’s agriculture department.

In addition, state officials work with the CIB&RC to conduct analysis (including MRLs of the pesticide post-harvest), to report and enforce on matters of public safety. The CIB&RC periodically reviews pesticide usage, and sometimes recommends bans on registration (e.g. when the MRLs are found to be above the PFA limits in agricultural produce post harvest). A list of banned pesticides is available at: As the Ministry of Agriculture continues to review pesticide safety, applications can be withdrawn or modified. In 2006, a number of pesticide applications were removed from the approved list:

Both the Central and State governments have been given the power to prohibit the sale, distribution or use of an insecticide or a particular batch in a specific location for a specific extent and for a specific period by notification in the official gazette [Section 27 of the Insecticides Act, 1968]. Section 26 of the legislation states that the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, require any person or class of persons specified therein to report all occurrences of poisoning (through the use or handling of any insecticide) coming within his or their cognisance to such officer as may be specified in the said notification. Based on such reports, on grounds of public safety, prohibition of sale of insecticides can be ordered and enforced. The Act also lays down penalties for producing/selling misbranded insecticides or for selling without license or for other contraventions of the Act.

While registration and licensing is done through the above mentioned processes, for banning or prohibiting a pesticide a different mechanism is used in India. Unlike in other countries where registered pesticides automatically come up for periodic reviews for their efficacy and safety (as in the case of some Scandinavian countries) or unlike in countries like Syria where a pesticide is automatically banned in the country if it is prohibited in two other countries, India goes through long processes of review and prohibition, usually through committees set up for the purpose.

1Agricultural Scientist, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, 12-13-445, Street no-1, Tarnaka, Secunderabad-500 017.