Sunita Narain: Divert, Deny and Dismiss
Sunita Narain
August 29, 2006

New Delhi: What a line of attack! In its ads to deny that it had pesticides in its drinks, PepsiCo said that there were more pesticides in tea, eggs, rice and apples. Coca-Cola in its defence has similarly argued that everything in India is contaminated, and its drinks are safe. However, the pesticide industry, in its public response wants the focus not to be on pesticides but on heavy metals and other contaminants.

Let’s put this spin-doctoring aside. We know this is the first step of a game plan: to divert attention from what needs to be done or to feed on our part-helplessness and part-cynicism, that everything is so bad, so why bother. Let’s focus on what needs to be done.

Let’s take the issue of water and food safety. The government’s own research shows that raw agricultural commodities — from milk to vegetables — are often contaminated with pesticides. Therefore, our strategy is to ensure that we can revamp regulations that govern the safe use of pesticides. The agenda for reform here is manifold: to ensure that no pesticide is registered without the setting of a maximum residue level, which defines what is safe residue in our food; to ensure that the sum of all toxins are kept within an overall safety threshold — called the acceptable daily intake by toxicologists and to ensure that there are credible and effective ways of enforcing these standards.

But like all our other double-triple burdens, we cannot take the step-by-step approach. The industrial world first cleaned up its water of bacteria, then pesticides, then heavy metals, and is now dealing with tinier and even more modern toxins like hormones and antibiotics. We have all of that in our food and water.

We also do not have the luxury of first cleaning agricultural raw material, then building our processed food industry. We will have to clean both ends of the food chain — the farm and the fork. We will have to do it together.

In all this, we know that diversion is just one of the ploys. The second is to deny. This is where “science” becomes a handy weapon. Modern science fails us. Even though it has created modern toxins, it is slow on generating knowledge about the impact of these toxins and pollutants on our bodies and our environment. Take climate change, take tobacco or even pesticides. The polluters want “conclusive” and “incontrovertible” evidence that there is cause and effect. We, the victims, have to prove our science.

The third tactic is to dismiss: your science is not good, it is not validated or peer reviewed. The health minister did exactly this when he used a half-baked report to try and discredit our laboratory and our work on soft drinks and pesticides. It did not matter that the same laboratory, its equipment and methodology had been examined and endorsed by the highest parliamentary committee.

The fourth step in the polluter’s game plan is to damn and to destroy. Let’s see what the future holds.

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