Though late, the Ministry of Agriculture has taken the right step to establish a laboratory at Kalimati Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market to test vegetables for pesticide residues. When tested, some vegetable samples from the neighboring districts of Kathmandu were found inedible because of excessive pesticide residue.
Such results were expected given the improper uses of pesticides in pocket areas. Although the national average of pesticide use (142 grams actual ingredients per hectare) is low compared to other countries, vegetable farmers in some pocket areas apply pesticides at an alarming 1,450 grams per hectare. As shown by the test reports, many vegetable samples taken from the Kalimati Wholesale Market contain higher residue levels than legally allowed. Even worse results may be obtained if tests are carried out in other markets in the country. In fact, commercial production of vegetable is a story of misuse, overuse and abuse of chemical pesticides, knowingly or unknowingly.
On one side, the recent initiation of testing vegetables for pesticide has made consumers aware. They have started to ask pesky questions to the traders. The volume of vegetables marketed in Kathmandu Valley has started to decline. On the other, this initiation has become a headache for the farmers. What should they do now? Should they stop growing vegetables and explore other options? What will then happen to vegetable supply in Kathmandu? If a win-win solution cannot be found soon, the situation could get serious. An integrated approach is required.
As vegetables with high pesticide levels are being supplied to other markets as well, testing of vegetable samples from all major markets as well as the major production areas of the country should be started at the earliest. This is a challenging task and needs big budget. Established laboratories need to be upgraded; still new ones will need to be set up elsewhere. Providing qualified manpower to these laboratories is another challenge. This is a human health related issue and the government should not hesitate to dispense enough budget and resources.
The Program Director of the Plant Protection Directorate under the Department of Agriculture has rightly pointed out that this type of work cannot be undertaken by a single agency without the support of the central and local administration. Coordination with neighboring countries, from where such vegetables are imported, is equally important.
Farmers should not be discouraged from growing vegetables in the fear of pesticide residues. Rather, they should be supported through training on appropriate production techniques. The use of pesticides cannot be completely done away with at one go. The emphasis should rather be right use of pesticides so that vegetables are safe to eat. In this context, farmers should also be aware of the consequences of pesticide misuse.
Some suggest organic farming is a viable alternative to conventional production. But feeding the growing population only organic products may not be feasible right away. However, organic farming in limited areas with limited commodities has shown encouraging results. Some organic vegetables produced in the vicinity of Kathmandu and Pokhara are getting attractive prices. But as prices are higher for organic vegetables, not all people might be able to afford them.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM), ecosystem resilience and diversity for pest, disease and weed control and use of pesticides only when other options are ineffective—these are some practical solutions. If farmers adhere to IMP practices, vegetables thus produced will be safe to eat.
Similarly, Integrated Crop Nutrient Management (ICNM), which seeks both to balance the need of plant nutrients and maintain soil fertility by reducing nutrient loss through erosion control, is another tool to produce safe food. Assessing existing plant nutrient supply systems and policies, soil fertility management and better fertilizer use strategies are imperative to avail safe food to consumers. Both these programs need to operate under a single effective management system.
The vegetable production areas, where the pesticide uses are at the highest, should first be identified and then intensive farmers’ training programs on IMP practices launched. IPM Farmers’ Field School, which is a season-long informal training on IPM, has been very effective. If these schools are conducted in those areas and regularly monitored by technicians, we will be able to provide safe vegetables in as little as three years. Similar trainings should also be given to vegetable traders and other stakeholders involved in the vegetable value chain.