July 11, 2016,
With concern over food safety slowly but surely nestling in the collective consciousness of consumers, the demand on the food delivery system is growing. Food safety standards continue to be redefined and recalibrated along the entire chain, and product management at its source is increasingly being viewed as a crucially important step in ensuring that the food that reaches our tables is safe. The focus is finally on the farm.
Burgeoning population has heightened the need for greater productivity and efficiency in preservation methods. Chemicals in the form of fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and preservatives have come to play a part in the push for these goals, and their negative impact on food safety needs to be nullified. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has spelt out the Maximum Residue Limits (MRL) for pesticides in fruits and vegetables, and the challenge for the food production and delivery chain is to constantly meet those safety standards.
Thanks to sustained campaigns consciousness over food safety is gaining ground rapidly. It is expected encompass more and more consumers in the coming years, and there is now a growing number of consumers ready to pay the extra buck for safer food. This backdrop will buttress the belief that now is the time to have the farmers play a bigger role in the food safety chain. It has to start with convincing and committing them to that path, and educating them on the methods and means to achieve those goals. In most cases round the country, it will entail big course corrections.
For example, farmers usually make sure they sell the fruits or vegetables they produce as early as possible to avoid the risk of damage by pests, often oblivious to the pre-harvest gaps prescribed for the pesticide. In certain areas, they lease out their land to traders. In the absence of training or knowledge about their use, farmers and traders spray pesticides and insecticides as guided by the salesmen. An assessment of practices required to ensure compliance must be made and training imparted to help farmers achieve them. Technical manpower will have to be mobilised to meet and monitor objectives. It is, thus, important to promote ‘best practices’ among farmers, possibly in a certifiable form, so that consumers are satisfied with the safety of the food they are buying and the farmers bask and blossom in the trust such certification brings.
The standards specified by GAP (Good Agriculture Practices) at the farm level, which include registration of pesticides by their manufacturers, are practised by several countries to ensure only safe fruits and vegetables reach consumers. To meet these standards, many export-oriented farms are already in compliance with GAP, which addresses economic viability, environmental sustainability, social acceptability along with food safety and quality. There is no reason why other farms cannot fall in line to ensure safe food right across the country. If the cost of compliance is ever a concern, it would be good to reflect on the savings brought about, both at an individual as well as at the government level, by the decrease in diseases.
Farmers need to be encouraged to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM) by bringing biopesticides into equation. Manufacturers of pesticides and insecticides must ensure their products are appropriately registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, and that they abide by a Code of Conduct while selling their products to the farmers. Legible labelling of pre-harvest diffusion period of a pesticide is a ‘must’.
Processed food products
Most retailers buy from traders and are usually unaware of which farm the fruits, vegetables or processed food products they sell have come from, and are oblivious to the health hazards posed by pesticide residues. They also lack the ability to check the produce for them. Roadside vendors are even more removed from such knowledge and knowhow. This is where certification can be the answer, and it will be about preparing farmers with practices that help keep pesticide residues within limits.
Retail chains insist on compliance through third party verification. If retailers are able to get practices at the source certified, they can display it on the packages. Consumer awareness on food certification by third party agencies like GAP will encourage more widespread compliance at the farm level. The resultant cascading effect will take ‘best practices’ to every corner of the country and ensure a healthier nation. It’s a win-win scenario for all. While consumer demands will set the tenor in production, with profitability providing the push, participation in the promotion of safe food will have farmers flush with pride in their produce.
Since most of them are small and marginal players, it would be best for farmers to form groups to implement ‘best practices’ and obtain third-party certification. Costs will thus get divided and together they will also be able to generate marketable volumes. State governments, agricultural universities, national research centres should facilitate such cluster development approaches so that every farm is on board. Sweetening substances injected into fruits, colours smeared on the vegetables to have them look fresh… The threat to health from adulteration is a very serious one. Certification can act as the firewall against it.
As compliance becomes a consumer-driven compulsion, hopefully leading to habit for farmers and others in the food delivery chain, and unsafe food is filtered out of the system. It would also lead to import of produce of comparable quality and safety. Export-quality food and food products wouldn’t have to originate from some ‘oasis of best practices’ but be available from farms across the country. Employment generation will be an offshoot of the programme, which will also contribute to the improvement of the environment and soil fertility, all adding to the quality of life ushered in by safer food. The farm is surely the place to start.
(The writer is Advisor, FSSAI. ‘The article is dedicated to Surakshit Khadya Abhiyan TM – a pan-India awareness campaign on `Safe Food for All’)