Varying accounts report between 9 and 18 deaths in 15 days and 800 instances of poisoning and 25 losing vision among farmers and farm labourers after spraying Profex Super pesticide on their Bt Cotton crops in Yavatmal. While most mainstream media is content to attribute the poisoning to farmers not taking adequate safety measures while spraying the crops, this blithe explanation doesn't quite cover what went down. The government needs to investigate the crisis immediately.
Local farmer leaders agree that there is inadequate regulation of manufacturers of pesticides and are angry that the farmer is being blamed for his own death as though they don't know how to spray pesticides on their own crops. An incident of this sort is unheard of for them as well.
'Profex Super' insecticide - contents, toxicity
Profex Super insecticide by Nagarjuna Agrichem (not linking because Google indicates the site may be hacked) contains Profenofos (an organophosphate) 40% + Cypermethrin (synthetic pyrethroid) 4% EC and its toxicity profile is between moderate to severe. Both are neurotoxins and have been implicated in harm to environment and other insects and animals. Both are dangerous to humans in high enough doses. However, a pesticide formulated for use on crops is formulated with the knowledge that there will be some inevitable human exposure and deaths from exposure like spraying do not seem to be a normal effect of a pesticide.
Failure of Bt Cotton?
Bt Cotton, promoted because of the inclusion of theBacillus thuringiensis gene in a genetically modified version of cotton, was intended to be lethal to various insects that feed on the foliage while being harmless to other life forms. It is known for a long time that pests have developed a resistance to the Bt strains used and thus, a crop intended to lower the use of insecticides instead is making headlines for farmers dying of insecticide exposure from spraying them.
If a company can collect money from patents for genetically modified seeds, it should also be responsible for the damage caused by its products not acting as advertised. But no one is speaking on behalf of farmers. The massive testimony they gave the All Party Parliamentary committee resulted in little more than the banning of one company. In the meanwhile, farmers are naively investing in useless seeds and still fighting overwhelming infestations on their crops.
Dubious logic to blame farmers
While the city based authors of articles on agriculture may see the possibility of farmers having inadvertently killed themselves through inadequate protection, it is worth mentioning that this is hardly agriculture's first prom when it comes to pesticides. Farmers have been spraying pesticides on crops for decades now. In fact, they have also been using pesticides to commit suicides when things get hopeless. It is rather naive to think farmers don't understand pesticide exposure or can just accidentally poison themselves to death. Even without adequate protections, the symptoms of exposure would include skin irritation, numbness, nausea and various other low key symptoms way before absorption through skin reached lethal levels. This is not a newly invented pesticide.
In fact, among the recorded deaths from Cypermethrin includes an accidental exposure that resulted in the death of one man when a 10% solution of Cypermethrin was accidentally used instead of cooking oil and consumed. One man died. Another recovered after being treated in hospital. Similar studies exist for other pesticides. Any pesticide with the potential to cause inadvertent death from absorption through the skin would not easily be released for spraying on crops!!!
Why only Yavatmal?
It is hardly like only farmers in Yavatmal use pesticides. So why has this crisis happened only in Yavatmal? The pesticide used by the farmers needs to be investigated. Was there a bad batch that got distributed to Yavatmal?
Was the pesticide formulated as per the claims on the labels?
Organophosphates are among the most lethal toxins invented by man. While they are widely used in pesticides, depending on formulation, they can also be lethal to humans in small quantities - think nerve gas, Sarin. If a pesticide is not being manufactured with adequate quality control, it can cause serious issues for lives, health, environment. Spraying of pesticide on outdoor crops, while still toxic, should not result in mass deaths and hospitalizations unless there is something wrong with the pesticide. This pesticide most certainly does not sound like it contains what it says on its labels. Either the contents are more lethal than disclosed or the quantities are.
The government needs to move IMMEDIATELY
The government needs to do the following:
- Issue an urgent - red alert level - advisory publicized widely on all platforms to not sell or use any Profex Super pesticide till the matter is investigated.
- Collect the used containers of the pesticide (and sprayers and such) from farmers who were affected and have them analyzed
- Conduct post mortems on dead farmers to establish the cause of death and chemicals involved.
- Depending on the analysis, remove the warning about the Profex Super pesticide or call for a complete withdrawal and action against the manufacturer.
- Analyze samples from sprayed crops for toxicity and destroy if found toxic (cottonseed oil is used for commercial snack foods frying!)
- Develop strong safeguards on use of dangerous chemicals in agriculture, educate farmers on safe use of chemical inputs, provide free and mandatory face masks and gloves along with containers of pesticide (we do it for freaking hair color!)