Pesticides and Paddy

By Ushakumari S on 14th May, 2019

In last January a paddy farmer from Vidarbha in Maharashtra committed suicide because of his mounting debt and inability to sell his harvested paddy. In 2010 many paddy farmers in Orissa also committed suicide. Even in Kerala some paddy farmers killed themselves! In the seventies the picture was very different, especially in Kerala and Tamilnadu where paddy farmers were in the forefront of the society. Many government employees even resigned their jobs and took up paddy cultivation.

Paddy was a socially and economically valued crop. Paddy is also a cultural crop. In India we have a long history of paddy cultivation, with locally adapted varieties and practices, trying to feed the burgeoning population. But the colonisation and the two world wars led to a lot of social uncertainties and economic collapse and the rural people had to pay a big price. So naturally independent India had to think of her food security, food self sufficiency and stop the import of food. The policy makers and political and social leaders sought ideas from the scientific community and technocrats and thus the idea of adopting Green Revolution dependent on irrigation and other technological breakthroughs to increase production, was born.

HYVs and pesticides The Green Revolution was launched in India in 1966 with the introduction of the high yielding paddy seed IR-8 from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines. This was also the first International Year of Rice, launched by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). IRRI exported not only their newly developed seeds but also the idea of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the Asian rice fields. Governments took a lot of effort to teach the traditional farmers the idea of increasing productivity as well as the new methods to achieve that.

Various strategies were used, starting from free supply of chemical fertilisers, subsidies for chemical pesticides, to giving loans and other support to only those paddy farmers who adopt these technologies. When farmers started cultivating HYVs they realised that these varieties are susceptible to pests and diseases. Scientists came up with the idea of spraying chemical pesticides to save the crops from pests. In the beginning agriculture departments organised demonstrations of pesticide spraying and pesticides were distributed by the department through its extension machinery which was followed by the opening up of pesticide shops in every nook and corner of the country to make them easily accessible.

The pesticides were also subsidised by the government and hence very affordable. Within a few years farmers realised that the pesticides were becoming ineffective and they tried higher dosages and newer chemicals and thereby creating opportunities for more pesticide companies. They sold different varieties of pesticides directly to the helpless farmers. This resulted in more and more pest out breaks and pest resurgence. The chemical pesticides could not eliminate pests; instead they eliminated many predators from the field.


Pesticides in Paddy The pesticide saga in paddy began with DDT, from DDT farmers moved to endrin, folidol, endosulfan, monocrotophos, chlorpyrifos, quinalphos, furadan, karate etc. All of them are either highly persistent, highly toxic to all life forms including human beings. The list is long! Rice stands next to cotton in terms of consumption of chemical pesticides in India. As per statistics on an average paddy cultivation uses 17% of total pesticides used in the country.


Why does paddy, the most important food crop of the country, need so many pesticides to give a good harvest? In Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Kerala, where ever paddy is cultivated extensively (two crops a year) with irrigated water and HYV seeds the situation is the same. Many of them use the same pesticides. What has been the effect of this rampant use of pesticides in paddy fields? Nothing less than a nightmare come true with detrimental effects on farmers health, ecological devastation of rice paddies, loss of aquatic life , and above all increased pest outbreaks! Numerous studies have revealed the detrimental effect of pesticide use on farmer health.

A recent study from Thanjavore in Tamilnadu by IIT Chennai brought out the acute effects of various pesticides on farmers health. The conclusions from this study is as follows1 “Use of pesticides in the agriculture sector poses a serious environmental and public health problem. The relationship between the extent of pesticide-use and signs and symptoms of illnesses due to exposure among farmers of Thanjavur District (South India) was assessed. 631 farmers were interviewed using pretested interview questionnaires during a cross sectional survey (537 men and 94 women). 433 (68.6%) farmers (of whom 4 were women) sprayed pesticides by themselves and therefore were directly exposed to pesticides.

More than 75% of farmers used either “moderately” or “highly hazardous” pesticides. 88% did not use any form of protection, while handling pesticides. About 50% of sprayers mixed different brands of pesticides, many of which were substitutable to each other. 56% of farmers obtained information on pesticides from retail shop owners. Farmers reported the following acute signs and symptoms: “excessive sweating” (36.5%), “burning/ stinging/ itching of eyes” (35.7%), “dry/sore throat” (25.5%), “excessive salivation” (14.1%). These signs and symptoms had a higher prevalence among the sprayers. ....There is need for creating more awareness among the farmers and authorities in enforcing and ensuring the use of protective gear while handling pesticides.” The cancer epidemic in the heartland of Indian Green revolution, Punjab, is extensively documented.

Two recent research reports from Punjab, in addition to the existing evidence over the years, about the link between pesticide use and incidence of cancer have prompted the state government of Punjab to set up a cancer registry program in the state. A recent study from Punjabi University found that there was high rate of DNA damage and fragmentation among farmers using pesticides thereby increasing the chances of cancer and chromosome mutations. 36% of blood samples of farmers occupationally exposed to pesticides showed DNA damage and cotton, paddy and wheat growers were found to be the worst affected.

2 Another study conducted by a committee headed by J S Bajaj, vicechairperson of the Punjab State Planning Board, in 17 villages in South West Punjab, found extensive contamination of drinking water with pesticides and heavy metals 3 Not only farmers’ health but also the whole ecosystem becomes burdened with pesticide residues as in the case of endosulfan. Rice paddies were a great source of fish, snails, crabs and other biota.

These were the main source of protein for the rice eating populations, especially the poor. Most of these resources got wiped out in the process of increasing paddy production. In regions where sustainable paddy cultivation or non pesticidal management (NPM) is implemented, farmers admit that these valuable resources are coming back. The disappearance of frogs from the paddy fields is by now well known and it’s after effects are being talked about even by ordinary people. Frogs are known to be excellent indicators of ecosystem health because the thin skin of the amphibian makes it susceptible to environmental contaminants, particularly agricultural

The modern green revolution farms produce on an average 3 tons of paddy per hectare, but the traditional Indian farms grow a mixed crop and do crop rotation and through that they easily produce at least 15 tons per hectare. In a document titled ‘Towards a New Green Revolution’ produced for the 1996 World Food Summit, the FAO claims that ‘the gains in production were dramatic; world cereal yields jumped from 1.4 tons per hectare in the early 1960s to 2.7 tonnes per hectare in 1989-91. Over the past 50 years, the volume of world agricultural production has doubled and world agriculture trade has increased three fold.

Between 1970 and 1990 fertiliser application in developing countries shot up by 360% , pesticide use increased by 7-8% and the land under irrigation increased by one–third. July 2011 5 chemicals. Research has established that many insecticides act as endocrine disruptors, inducing feminizing effects and severely affecting frog populations. In some studies it was also revealed that organs of frogs exposed to pesticides were malformed. Continued and excessive use of pesticides in paddy fields has been reported to cause pests out break as well.

Brown Plant Hopper (BPH-appropriately called the Green Revolution pests) outbreaks due to insecticides have been recognized for many years. Kenmore (1980) reported this in the Philippines and others have described and quantified the ecological impact of insecticides to rice arthropod communities (Heong and Schoenly 1998). The importance of these natural enemies was emphasized by Ooi and Shepard (1994) and over 100,000 copies of “Friend of the Rice Farmer: Helpful Insects, Spiders and Pathogens” by Shepard, Barrion and Litsinger (first published in 1987 by the International Rice Research Institute) have been printed and distributed in over 25 non-English languages. In a recently concluded workshop in Singapore , organised by Ramsar Convention, it was reported that unbridled and unregulated manufacture and use of pesticides in

Asian countries without inadequate farmer education has led to a situation where pests are thriving and laying to waste vast tracts of Asia’s paddy farms.”4 Nevertheless, majority of the governments and international agencies have neither taken cognizance of these facts nor made appropriate course correction 

A Glimpse of sustainable alternatives

IRRI which was one of the leading promoters of chemical based paddy cultivation has changed its policy and stance on the use of pesticides. Since the mid 1990s IRRI has said that productive paddy cultivation does not require the use of chemical pesticides. A major study done under the aegis of IRRI concluded among other things that if the economic impact of pesticides on farmer health is taken into account, then natural pest control is the most profitable pest management strategy.

A trial was undertaken in Indonesia When President Suharto issued a Presidential decree to ban 57 kinds of insecticides in 1986 aimed at removing the insecticide subsidies that accompanied the rice intensification program. Insecticide use gradually declined when subsidies were removed. IPM training followed a year or so later.

 The results were clear and dramatic. Another glimpse of a different future for pesticide free paddy farming is available in our own country in Andhra Pradesh, where the community managed sustainable agriculture (CMSA) began. Introduced under the aegis of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) this initiative focused on eliminating chemical pesticides from the package of farming practices. None of the crops including paddy grown under the NPM program use any chemical pesticide; instead farmers depend on ecological, biological and cultural methods of pest control.

CMSA is based on a judicious combination of scientific methods, indigenous practices and traditional wisdom. With integrated pest management as its centrepiece CMSA advocates managing pest populations through understanding pest behavior, improving soil health, increasing diversity of crop systems and using local land races ,replacing chemical pesticides with physical methods and bio pesticides and reducing (and eventually stopping) the use of synthetic fertilizers 5 .

 CMSA has been ably managed by robust community institutions and able leadership within the community; farmers are mobilized into self help groups, trained through farmer field schools and provided institutional support for credit and value addition. Currently a million farmers are practicing non pesticidal management across an area of 2.5 million acres (1 million ha) spread over 7000 villages in 22 districts of Andhra Pradesh6 .

Conclusion In the second week of May many of us participated in a seed sowing ceremony in a tribal village in Kerala along with 35 students. The tribal chief described to us the rituals which they follow during sowing, transplanting and harvest. Children got really enthused since they were seeing it for the first time. Some of the students were from the same district but they had not seen something like this before.

These tribal farmers have been cultivating paddy for generations and they continue to use the same varieties of paddy. They have not gone in to the ‘seed replacement’ scheme and they have not used pesticides so far. They are satisfied with their heritage seed collections developed by their forefathers. The ritual was to pay respect to this heritage and remember those who developed these varieties from the wild cultivars.

They get a satisfactory yield with the application of cow dung and other green manures. They have various cultural methods to control pests as well. This must be true for most of the indigenous rice farmers of India. But the economists and policy makers are not satisfied and they have not learnt from the tragedy caused by the first green revolution.

They have not realised that rice farmers have lost their position in the society and this is not because they did not produce enough rice. In fact they produced well beyond their capacity and their soil’s capabilities (and their produce did not reach the needy and poor but fed the rats in the government godowns instead) and in the process lost everything while the pesticide companies gained tremendously.

Now the people in power have planned for a second green revolution with hybrid seeds and this time they have tied up not only with pesticide companies but seed companies as well. Any person with some common sense can see that the future predicted by Rachel Carson, in her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ about the future of chemical farming and humanity, has become true although she did not live long enough to see it.