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Posted at: Nov 19, 2018, 12:03 AM; last updated: Nov 19, 2018, 12:03 AM (IST)

The residual enemy

Punjab basmati cultivators were losing the edge in global markets because of the high pesticide content until the state government launched an education campaign this kharif season to reverse the trend, writes KS Pannu

Basmati, a heritage produce of India's north-west region, requires special geographical indicators in terms of weather condition and soil type that exist in the region, including Punjab, Haryana, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu. Basmati is grown in about 5.7 lakh hectare in Punjab, covering 90 per cent of the area.

India is the largest exporter of basmati in the world with an estimated value of about Rs 27,000 crore. It exported about 4 million tonne of basmati in 2017-18 in major international markets such as the Arab world, the US, Europe, including over 130 countries. Punjab and Haryana contribute more than 60 per cent of exports.

Basmati exporters had been facing a major problem with regard to higher minimum residue levels (MRLs) of pesticides in the rice grains exported to the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia, with traces of acephate (MRL in EU and the US is 0.01), carbendazim (0.01), thaiamethoxam (0.01 in EU and 0.02 in USA), tricyclazole (0.01 in EU, 3PPM in USA) and triazophos (0.02 in EU and 0.01 USA). This had led to the fear that the higher pesticide residue would adversely affect exports.

Basmati-producing regions have typical tropical weather conditions with high temperature and humidity levels, which are potential breeding ground for insects and pests, and thus require large-scale application of pesticides. Any indiscriminate use of pesticide, however, leaves residues in grains.

Alarmed at the rejection of consignments of basmati by the US, the EU and Saudi Arabia in previous years, the Punjab government, in collaboration with the Punjab Rice Exporters Association, embarked upon a campaign for pesticide-free basmati this Kharif season. 

Under the four-month-long sustained campaign, farmers and pesticide dealers were made aware about the ill effects of five agro-chemicals on basmati crop and to curtail their use. The efforts yielded positive results, which was clear from the analysis of basmati grains by approved pesticides laboratory at Modipurum. The Punjab Rice Millers & Exporters Association expressed satisfaction over the quality of basmati rice, free from the residue of chemicals.

The lab results from Modipurum have shown that major pesticides such as acephate,  carbendazim, tricyclazole, triazophos and thiamethoxam were within the internationally-recognised limits in the paddy samples sent from major basmati growing areas of Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur.

The Department of Agriculture, Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) and Punjab rice exporters had started comprehensive education-cum-awareness programme by organising more than two dozen workshops and thousand of village-level camps throughout the basmati belt of the state. In addition to media campaigns, one-to-one contacts with farmers were launched. The farmers were encouraged to adopt traditional methods of basmati cultivation by restricting the use of chemicals fertilisers and pesticides, especially to shun the five ‘villain’ pesticides. A continuous surveillance on pesticide dealers was kept by the Department of Agriculture to ensure that there is no sale of these pesticides.

The Punjab Agriculture Department constituted about 50 teams and the Basmati Exporters Association had set up teams with agriculture experts visiting all major basmati paddy village clusters in the Majha, Doaba and Malwa belts over the four months, giving them tips on the minimal use of pesticides. 

Teams of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) visited paddy growing areas of Punjab and expressed their satisfaction over the pesticide-free basmati campaign.

A team from the EU also visited Punjab and interacted with officials of the Department of Agriculture, besides visiting pesticide dealers and fields to understand the dynamics of basmati cultivation. The team has been requested to relax their very stringent standards of residue level to the levels fixed by the US and Japan. The maximum residue levels of the US and Japan are 3 PPM and 5 PPM, respectively, for tricyclazole pesticide while the same for the EU is 1 PPM, which is practically impossible to meet. The EU team promised to look into the matter.

With the residue levels of pesticide in basmati falling within the limits, there has been greater demand for Punjab basmati in the national and international markets. As a result,  prices of basmati have surged 25-30 per cent above last year’s level. The ‘1509’ variety of basmati is being sold at Rs 2,700-2,900 per quintal and the ‘1121’ variety is fetching around Rs 3,600 per quintal. Better prices of basmati have put a smile on the faces of farmers who will reap rich dividends this year, albeit it has been hard earned by them by making huge efforts and investment.

— The writer is Agriculture Secretary, Government of Punjab

EU’s new basmati import norms 

  • Tricyclazole (TCA), a fungicide, controls neck blast in rice
  • EU reduced maximum residue limit for TCA to 0.01 mg/kg
  • New MRL applies to basmati from December 30, 2017
Steps taken to ensure compliance

  • Exporters undertake pre-shipment testing for pesticide residues
  • Awareness programmes organised by APEDA  and AIREA
  • Dow Agro Sciences, manufacturers of TCA, sought import tolerance
  • India pursuing  authorities in Europe for ‘import tolerance’

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