The poison we eat: who should take action?

BY: Ajoa Yeboah- Afari

 It seems that these days everywhere one turns, one sees mouth-watering displays of fruit and other farm produce in abundance, awaiting buyers.

From watermelons, through garden eggs, peppers and plantain to yam, they look so inviting.The big sizes, and appealing colours, should be a source of joy; especially the evidence that so much produce is available. But are they all safe to eat? Are the farmers using the right, safe chemicals and methods? More importantly, is any agency carrying out sustained public education on these matters?

Thus perhaps it is opportune to revisit some of the food safety issues raised in this space a couple of years ago. The following is an abridged version of that article:

Just what is happening with our yam and farm produce in general? I have complained in this space, not too long ago, that now even pepper has lost its bite. But the yam matter is equally disturbing.
These days, when one peels and cuts yam to cook, often one finds either part of it, or the whole tuber, is not the expected natural colour, but brownish or even blackish, an indication that it has gone bad.

Or, despite looking safe to eat, if one uses half of the yam and puts the other half away for use later, in a day or two it would have to be thrown away.  
As for the taste, that’s another matter altogether. Even the high-demand yams, like pona (which even in London Asian grocers know and proudly display “Ghana ‘pona’- yam-on-sale-here” signs) have inexplicably lost their taste.

Are we using our hard-earned money to buy ill-health each time we buy yam or other foodstuffs? Are we poisoning ourselves each time we eat because some of the crops are grown through risky farming practices?

What if the problem crops and vegetables are the result of wrong application of farm chemicals by non-literate farmers? What if the bad produce is the result of the inadequate expertise, or training, of farmers in the use of the agrochemicals to protect their crops from weeds or pests?   

Rural folk and the farmers themselves who are compelled to use them, have been complaining for ages about the negative effect on crops grown with chemicals, but who is listening?

But maybe I’m wrong to say that the phenomenon is “inexplicable”, because there are people who know about these things, only evidently nobody in Government is paying attention to their research findings and recommendations.

In a well-argued article in the Daily Graphic, research scientist Atta Kwesi Aidoo of the Crops Research Institute provided some insights regarding the concerns, clearly with the aim of prompting action by the relevant authorities.

In an Opinion piece in the Graphic of Friday, July 1, 2016, under the headline, ‘Neglected dangers of pesticides’, Mr Aidoo made the following points:
“Farmers and pesticide sellers in most developing countries in Africa and Asia are ignorant of the proper handling of pesticides. A typical example of misuse and misapplication of pesticides was an observation made last year in a major tomato producing community in the country. Whitish substances found on the fruit was a result of the pesticide spray.

“It was revealed that most of the farmers sprayed their tomato fields with a pesticide which is strictly supplied to only cocoa farms to control pests.

“There is more evidence surfacing that pesticides are linked to a wide range of health hazards on humans …

“Acute (health) dangers … and systemic poisoning – can sometimes be dramatic and occasionally fatal. Chronic health effects occur years after even minimal exposure to pesticides in the environment, or result from the pesticide residues which we ingest through our food and water. (Emphasis added.)

“There are many flaws in the way that pesticides are registered and in our political process that allows external bodies to influence pesticide policy to allow the continued use of their poisonous products.

“Monitoring of pesticides in the country has not been taken seriously. The Environmental Protection Agency as a body (does) not have the human resources to embark on effective monitoring of pesticide sellers and farmers.

“There are brilliant regulations in place to ensure the control of pesticide usage in the country, but who cares to implement or enforce them?” (Emphasis mine.)

His recommendations:

“The real solution to our pest and weed problems lies in the non-toxic and cultural methods of agriculture. Organically grown foods and sustainable methods of pest control are key to our families’ health and the health of the environment.

“The state should require stricter independent testing, including testing of synergistic effects of pesticides. Pesticides known or suspected of causing health problems to humans should be phased out.

“Technical assistance on non-toxic alternatives to pesticides use should be provided to farmers, local governments, businesses and residents …. (Emphasis mine.)

“Pesticide use should be prohibited in places where our children live and play, including schools, parks and playgrounds. Pollution of our water and poisoning of our communities should be prohibited,” Mr Aidoo advised.

Did anybody in the Government or the Ministry of Agriculture read Mr Aidoo’s very enlightening article?  Maybe what is inexplicable is that little or no action is being taken on such valuable research findings.

Mr Aidoo’s poignant question is worth reflecting on: “There are brilliant regulations in place to ensure the control of pesticide usage in the country, but who cares to implement or enforce them?”

And he’s not the only expert troubled about the application of agrochemicals. When I wrote about pepper losing its hotness, I also quoted the disquiet expressed by Dr Francis Tetteh, a senior research scientist of the Soil Research Institute.

Speaking at a National Fertilizer Stakeholders forum in Accra, Dr Tetteh stated that “the fertilizer industry (has) many setbacks such as issues of quality, regulation, pricing, subsidy and proper use and application of fertilizers” (emphasis mine).

Obviously we are all at risk if farm produce – from pepper, through tomatoes to yam – is being cultivated with wrong chemicals or by wrong application of the substances.

So whose duty is it to ensure the implementation or the enforcement of the “brilliant regulations to ensure the control of pesticide usage in the country”?

 We wait to see which of the party manifestos will address the alarming, widespread food safety threats -and what pragmatic approaches they will propose to earn our votes.

(This column was first published in the issue of Friday, July 15, 2016.)
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