Towards toxic-free and chemical-free agriculture

Modern agricultural practices, with the introduction of monocrop cultivation and high yielding varieties in food crops has meant escalating use of pesticides due to increased susceptibility to diseases and pests. It is time for us to shift towards more sustainable models in agriculture which are ecologically sound and economically viable otherwise we will not only damage our natural resources but damage the human health perpetually.

Pesticides are poisons that cause irreversible damage to human health through acute effects, chronic effects or both and also the environment. Chronic effects can be delayed effects from an individual exposure or the result of repeated low-level exposures, of which impacts build over time.  Pesticides are stored in the body, increasing the body burden.  
Most pesticides have acute toxic effects; many also present serious chronic hazards. The UN Economic and Social Committee found that annually between 20,000 and 40,000 people in the world die of pesticide poisoning. Tests have revealed that out of 426 compounds in pesticides, 164 have been implicated as causing cancer, genetic mutations or reproductive problems ranging from impotency to birth defects. Consumers of food produced by using these pesticides are at the risk of being subject to cancer and birth defects. Pesticides are also frequently used as a means for suicide.

Although pesticides are targeted to kill pests, the chemicals are also capable of killing non-target creatures and also farm and environmentally important creatures such as frogs, fishes and other insects. We have witnessed many cases of pesticide poisoning, even leading to death of farmers and also cattle that forage in farms that had been sprayed with pesticides. There are also reports showing high pesticide residues in the streams of Malaysia often with residues of banned pesticides or pesticides discontinued decades back.

Malaysian agriculture is predominantly plantation based with more than 77% of agriculture land under industrial crops like oil palm, rubber, cocoa, pineapple and pepper while the remaining land is under annual food crops like paddy, vegetables, fruits, etc.  The remaining agricultural practitioners in the country are predominantly small holder agriculture with an average land holding of 1.45 ha.  One million of such farmers account for work on 75 % of this total agricultural land.  

With the advent of the Green Revolution, initially the success scored by farmers in terms of good harvests and pests destroyed, had convinced them that pesticides are miracle bullets.  With indiscriminate use (and recommendations) and increasing pesticide-resistant pests developing, these farmers are compelled to switch to more powerful and toxic chemicals and repeated sprays to protect their crops.  Surveys carried out by the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP)’s over the years have found that farmers resort to making chemical cocktails by combining several pesticides to make it more potent or use banned, toxic and ecologically hazardous pesticides.

CAP works towards securing consumers rights for safe food and secure living.  CAP has organized visits of several experts working towards this goal to share their experiences and suggest the way forward.  In continuation of its efforts towards a clean, safe and healthy food production CAP has organized a visit by Dr. G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, an Agricultural Scientist working with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) ( in India.  

Dr. Ramanjaneyulu specialises in Non Pesticidal Management (NPM), managing insect pests and diseases in crop plants without using chemical pesticides.  CSA has convincingly established NPM methods on a fairly large scale covering more than 280,000 ha during 2004-05 to 2007-08 in the state of Andhra Pradesh covering all the crops under the programme ‘Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture’ (CMSA).  

Several of the villages have become completely pesticide free, breaking the myths that ecological farming models are not possible on a large scale and are of low productivity.  The costs of production were reduced, ranging from RM750 to RM4,500 while crop productivity was maintained across all crops.  This unique model was based on pest management using a set of preventive and curative measures based on locally available plant and animal resources and a learning model in the form of Farmer Field Schools.  

Several independent evaluations including the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) have documented the benefits of the programme to the farmers, environment and consumers.  Today the programme is practised in  over 1.5 million ha in the state of Andhra Pradesh covering about 15% of the cultivated area in the state.  The model has been taken up by the Government of India for implementation in more than 150 districts from 2011 onwards.

The villages practising NPM have been visited by many, including Malaysian government officials.  During these visits it was felt that a similar model needs to be promoted in Malaysia where pesticide use and the consequent ecological crisis are increasing. Dr. Ramanjaneyulu’s visit is organized as a result of this.

This visit was organized in the form of field visits and dialogue with several state Department of Agriculture offices, farmers and other organizations in order to understand the issues and problems in conventional farming particularly with pests and diseases, pesticides in relation to experiences with Non Chemical approaches in farming.

Dr. Ramanjaneyulu had visited Tanjung Karang, Selangor where the Department of Agriculture has organised demonstrations on System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to reduce water and chemical use in agriculture.  In discussions with farmers, it was found that the pest and disease problems are increasing in paddy farming, necessitating high pesticide use.  

We also met farming families in Sekincan, Selangor and Jerlun, Kedah.  The discussions clearly show that there is an increasing problem of Paddy Stem Borer, Brown Plant Hopper, Rice Black Bugs diseases like Leaf spots and Golden Apple Snails.  The farmers are using increased doses of chemical pesticides but could not control the pests.

The discussions with the Officials from the Agriculture Department also revealed similar problems across the country.  In addition there is also heavy use of chemical fertilizers.  In plantation crops like oil palm and rubber the usage of agro-chemicals is also high. The approach seems to be moving towards ‘Paddy Estates’ where paddy is grown with hybrids, high use of chemicals and mechanization which would prove disastrous to the Environment, Farmers and Consumers.

Most farmers were not aware of any other approach which could prevent the increase of pest incidence.  The severe incidence of Brown Plant Hoppers is linked to the high humidity in the paddy fields and also close planting.  Hopper Burn (patches of yellow/brown) due to brown plant hopper burning can be seen all along the national highways.  Intermittent drying of fields and maintaining spacing of about 25 cm between rows or leaving a pathway after every two meters will help with sunlight penetration to prevent insects from multiplying.  

Similarly, Stem Borer can be monitored well by using pheromone traps/light traps and when the increased insect population is noticed people can go for control measures.  This monitoring based pest management is important to avoid scheduled sprays which are practised and promoted today.  Locally available plants like Neem, Lantana, Pongam, etc can be used for making green sprays which can be used to control insects if they reach beyond threshold limit.

The Malaysian government should immediately initiate a programme to train and support farmers on the organic NPM methods of pest management which includes farmers understanding of the insect life cycles and to change cropping systems accordingly to prevent pest and disease buildup and learn about how they can use the locally available plant and animal waste to make green sprays to control these pests.  A farmer field school approach where every farmer is trained on these aspects as in India and Indonesia which helped millions of farmers to shift from chemical based pest management to organic NPM is essential.

Similarly, there is increasingly high pesticide use in vegetable crops wherein pesticide residues come into contact with food directly as most of the vegetables are not processed.  

Stop burning biomass to mitigate climate change

The plantation crops like oil palm, rubber, etc that produce a lot of waste material are valuable biomass that can be converted into compost. This can be used to reduce usage of chemical fertilizer, costs and (the national) fertiliser bill to a great extent.  

In paddy fields also farmers often resort to burning of the straw. For every 2 tons of paddy grain about 3 tons of straw is produced.  One ton of straw on burning releases 3 kg particulate matter, 60 kg Carbon Monoxide (CO), 1460 kg Carbon Dioxide (CO2), 199 kg ash and 2 kg Sulphur Dioxide (SO2).  

About 40–80% of the paddy crop residue Nitrogen is lost as ammonia when burned and about 32–76% of the straw weight and 27–73% Nitrogen is lost in burning, as 25% of Nitrogen(N) and Phosphorous (P), 50% of Sulphur (S) and 75% of Potassium (K) uptake by cereal crops are retained in crop residues.

In the absence of a good extension programme to promote greener farming, government policies like supporting paddy farmers producing more than 12 tons/ha of rice has led to an unnecessary drive to produce more at any cost.  The Federal Government should recast this subsidy to support production of healthier and environmentally sustainable agricultural production.

Shifting to organic ways of crop production helps to reduce costs of cultivation and improve the quality of the produce.  The Malaysian government should immediately initiate a programme to support farmers to make their farming greener.

Press Statement – 26 July 2011