Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cola wars

There has been some noise on the pesticides in cola controversy in India. A lot of articles came out saying sure, there are pesticides in colas, but the water we drink, or the vegetables farmers grow are far worse, with even more toxins. So, don't blame the cola companies.

To me, that seemed like diverting the issue from one wrong to another. Particularly since a lot of mud was thrown on the CSE, which came out with the findings.

Anyway, here's Sunita Narain of the CSE, with her response. I've pasted the complete article below. (I've also added my stand on the issue at the bottom).

Editorial: Divert, deny, dismiss and damn

==============================


What a line of attack! PepsiCo, in its advertisements to deny that it had pesticides in its drinks, said that there were more pesticides in tea, eggs, rice and apples. Coca-Cola, in its defence, has similarly argued that as everything in India is contaminated, its drinks are safe. They say this is being done to target them, because they are big brands and us multinationals. On the other hand, the pesticide industry, in its public response, wants the focus not to be on pesticides but on heavy metals and other contaminants. They also say that they are being singled
out.

What should we understand from all this: one, we should not target us companies, not target the pesticide industry and in fact, not target any particular industrial sector but keep the issue at the level of generalities. Two, we should not try and fix any specific problem, like pesticides in soft drinks through improved regulations. But we should keep our work focussed on everything that is bad from pesticides in milk to heavy metals in soil. Three, we should not try to get the government to set regulations for soft drinks because they were found to have
pesticides. We should instead try and fix something else.

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. There is no doubt that water is increasingly contaminated with all kinds of bacteria and that dirty water kills more babies than anything else in our country, which is clearly and absolutely unacceptable.

Worse, we have a double burden of both pollutants and diseases. So there are biological contaminants mixed with trace chemical toxins from the modern industrial world they include arsenic and mercury to hormones and pesticides to even more deadly dioxins and furans.

All this contamination has to be challenged. All this has to be minimised so that it does not jeopardise our health. All this will have to be done urgently and together. But all this can only be done with a clear strategy and prioritisation of action so that we can bring deliberate change.

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. We also know that regulations for pesticides in raw agricultural commodities are set, but are lax and not enforced. Therefore, the 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.

In this we can learn from governments across the world. For instance, the uk government has a policy for naming and shaming suppliers of food that is contaminated. Our government can also check milk and vegetables on a random basis and make the data it collects available publicly.

In addition, it will be important to work with farmers who overuse and misuse pesticides, because of the lack of information supplied by the industry. Remember that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has virtually abdicated its role of agricultural extension to private pesticide and seed industry interests.

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. It did not matter, because the purpose was not science but to use its power to discredit and to dismiss.

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

- Sunita Narain

-------------------

The way I see it is:

1) There appear to be pesticides in Colas (of varying degrees). The cola companies should (and can) make sure that their products are safe.
2) The government has a responsibility to have serious regulations on all food/water etc (like the various food safety agencies in the US). This starts from food growing and selling practices, that need reform. They've failed in that job. So, you cannot just blame a large corporation when the whole system doesn't have clear regulations.
3) However (1) and (2) can both be addressed, partly independently. In a country like India, it's hard to enforce good farming practices, selling practices or water management etc directly, because there're just too many farmers who can't easily be reached (for example). But a few mass market producers (major bottled water, milk, soft drink and food manufacturers/suppliers) can be asked to enforce safety standards, with clear liability and accountability. By doing that, the message will also go out in turn to their suppliers, and finally (eventually) the food growers.
4) CSE needs to answer the questions that people have correctly asked it, particularly for their own credibility. Narain also needs to answer specific questions addresed to her. Being evasive doesn't help. But that doesn't make all the points CSE made irrelevant. So, this editorial of hers, though incomplete, does raise some important (and in my opinion valid) points.

7 comments:

witnwisdumb said...

Sunil,

Coming from a person who is interested in science, like you, I find these statements disturbing. Let me explain why.

Nearly each and every component of our diets today, contains varying degrees of 'toxins'. There is absolutely nothing that can be done to change this over a short period of time.

On a more long term basis, the only solution would be to revert to organic farming, and enforce extremely stringent regulations on industrial wastes, effluents in water bodies. We would also need to introduce strict regulations on landfills and garbage dumps. Keep in mind that even with these regulations introduced, it would take several decades for us to see sharp decreases in the level of contaminants present in food.

This said, it is also pertinent to note that in many Indian cities, it may not even be possible to introduce/enforce environmental standards which are stringent enough to lead to such a long term change. While the environmentalists go about screaming blue murder, and calling for private industry to become more eco friendly, what many of them fail to notice is the very cities they live in are virtual pollution machines.

Don't get me wrong here: I have nothing against environmentalists, I am one myself - but as the inevitable result of 'taking the movement to the people', environmentalism has become a fad, and most of those who profess it have no real idea of the science involved, and go about doing more harm than good with their half-baked knowledge. Their intentions may be really noble, but the effects of half-knowledge are dangerous.

The government municipalities of most of our cities severely lack the infrastructure necessary to reduce environmental pollution. In many cases, the problem is compounded due to poor or non existent urban planning. So bringing about the changes described earlier will take a very long time indeed. Fifty years, at the very least.

With this scenario in mind, lets come back to the issue at hand: almost everything we eat and drink contains large amounts of contaminants. It is a fact that many common elements of our diet, like several vegetables, milk, eggs, et.al, have far higher concentrations of contaminants than can be found in soft drinks.

So the question is: why are people picking on soft drinks? Let's face it, it isn't because they are harmful. If the case were to be that we should stop consuming things that are 'harmful', and we state that soft drinks are harmful, then we'd have to stop consuming an impracticably large number of other foodstuffs as well.

Or perhaps, the people believe that the solution would be to remove the contaminants? As I've already stated before, this is impossible to do. The contaminants present in soft drinks come from the sugar. And the sugarcane used to make the sugar absorbs the chemicals in question, from the soil, as well as from the pesticides sprayed on to them.

At this point, some people might be tempted to argue that even though lots of other things contain contaminants, soft drinks have no nutritional value, and so they should be banned. This is where the science stops and the politics begin. India is a relatively young democracy, and yet it has already erred several times on the side of censorship. Let the people decide whether or not they want to drink soft drinks. My suggestion would be that soft drink manufacturers should place a warning on the containers, quite like cigarette manufacturers are required to do.

I don't really know of mud slinging at the CSE. But I do know that the few valid questions asked of Sunita Narain, she failed to answer. Not only that, she didn't even have the grace to decline them politely.

When asked whether the CSE labs had the required government accreditation for them to perform these tests, Sunita Narain chose to be evasive, and then used the lame excuse that she "didn't have the time" to answer the question.

Sunil said...

Witnwisdumb........thanks for your comments, and you make some very good points.

perhaps in my short little writeup before I linked the article.....it appeared as if i was endorsing the article.

I am not. I don't think the CSE has done itself any credit in the way this issue was handled. And their own data was shoddy and incomplete. Also, you are absolutely right on long term measures needed, and the lack of ability to undertake those tasks.

My only intention was to point out that it seems like one wrong is being diverted by another, and so on.

The way I see it is:

1) There appear to be pesticides in Colas (of varying degrees). The cola companies should (and can) make sure that their products are safe.
2) The government has a responsibility to have serious regulations on all food/water etc (like the various food safety agencies in the US). This starts from food growing and selling practices, that need reform. They've failed in that job.
3) (1) and (2) can both be addressed, partly independently. In a country like India, it's hard to enforce good farming practices, selling practices etc, because there're just too many farmers who can't easily be reached. But a few mass market producers (major bottled water, milk, soft drink and food manufacturers) can be asked to enforce safety standards. By doing that, the message will also go out in turn to their suppliers, and finally (eventually) the food growers.
4) CSE needs to answer the questions that people have correctly asked it, particularly for their own credibility. Narain also needs to answer specific questions addresed to her. Being evasive doesn't help. But that doesn't make all the points CSE made irrelevant.

(I'll add these points to the post itself, to make my own stand clearer).

witnwisdumb said...

Hmmm. 2,3 and 4 make sense to me. 1 would be great if it were possible, but as far as I'm aware, there isn't any way to eliminate the contaminants in the colas. Please do correct me if I'm wrong.

Selva said...

IMHO, CSE could've handled this more transparently. If the idea was to get the public to focus on the issues involving quality of water, they've acheived that goal admirably. The question is: what now? There's a bigger fight to be fought. I favor policy changes along with practical solutions (like what these guys are doing: http://web.mit.edu/watsan/index.htm)

Sunil said...

witnwisdumb......I'm not sure they can't be eliminated. Selva's linked to the mit site gives various options for water purification. Given the cola companies scales of operation, they should be able to couple deionization/distillation with a second purification method to get largely contaminant free water. It's a little more work in the beginning, but that'll encourage the companies to take better care of their own aquifers, and perhaps start water management education in their own aquifer areas. Of course, that alone is hardly a solution. Like Selva said, it needs policy changes with practical solution. And thanks for that link Selva. I was actually mulling a post on the massive arsenic contamination in aquifers in Bengal and Bihar. This link has plenty of information on that, amongst many other practical solutions.

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