An apple a day won’t keep doctors away from Kashmir orchardists

An apple a day won’t keep doctors away from Kashmir orchardists

An apple a day won’t keep doctors away from Kashmir orchardists

Pesticide overuse with scant regard for safety protocols and protective equipment results in a high number of cancer patients among orchard owners in South Kashmir      

Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir: He was affable and perfectly healthy. Hailing from South Kashmir’s Shopian district, Ghulam Mohammad Sofi* (65) could single-handedly manage the workload of 10 people in his apple orchard spread over two-and-a-half acres. He earned Rs 15 lakh annually until his world turned upside down one day.

Two years ago, after returning from the orchard where he had sprayed pesticide, Sofi complained of searing abdominal pain. “The local doctor gave him some medicine. However, he continued to feel weak with pain affecting his legs and arms in the following months. Worried about the sudden change in his appetite and loss of energy, we got him examined at the District Hospital, Shopian,” his brother Ghulam Mohiddin* told 101Reporters.

“After a few tests, they advised us to immediately shift him to the Regional Cancer Centre, Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS). We got his disease confirmation there. He had stage 4 stomach cancer. Soon, he was put on chemotherapy but unfortunately, he passed away.” 

Another orchardist from Shopian district, Mukhtar Ahmad* (60) was quite happy after switching from paddy cultivation to apple farming on his eight kanals of land six years ago. The crop brought him around Rs 10 lakh yearly, but his happiness did not last long as he was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year. “We took him to Delhi, where he was operated upon. It was too late. He could not survive,” his wife Hameeda Bano* said mournfully.

Both these cases are examples of how a swift conversion of agricultural lands into high-density orchards has resulted in the excessive and indiscriminate use of pesticides in Kashmir. 

Farmers spraying pesticides in Kashmir (Photos courtesy of Dr Alamgir Dar/101Reporters) 

In the 2021-22 financial year, nearly 4 lakh hectares of land were under cultivation in Jammu and Kashmir. Of that, 3.35 lakh hectares had fruits and 0.6 lakh hectares had vegetable production.

Figures revealed that in 1974-75, the area under horticulture was 82,486 hectares. It increased to 2,19,039 hectares in 2001. In 2020, it stood at 3,30,956 hectares. The exponential growth of over 400% was triggered by the high economic benefits associated with the sector. The region is the main producer of apples and walnuts, with 77% of apples and 90% of walnuts produced in the country coming from the Kashmir Himalayas.

“Farmers traditionally cultivated irrigation-intensive paddy, but the income was meagre. So when the government incentivised apple farming, the majority of them converted their lands into apple orchards. With the introduction of high-density apple crops of huge economic value, pesticide use also increased threefold in the last 12 years, especially in Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag districts of South Kashmir,” Dr Alamgir Dar, pesticide analyst, Research Centre for Residue and Quality Analysis, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology (SKUAST)-Kashmir, told 101Reporters.  

Farmers initially sprayed pesticides, mostly fungicides and insecticides, twice or thrice annually. But 10 to 12 sprays became a routine as pest attacks increased over time. In spring, Scabs affected tender apple leaves. San Jose Scale sucked sap from branches, leaves and fruits and affected the plant's overall vitality in May-June. Its presence could be easily discerned from the reddish blemishes found on the fruit. European Red Mite pests also fed on the leaves, thereby reducing the yield.

About 10 to 12 sprays became a routine as pest attacks increased over time (Photos courtesy of Dr Alamgir Dar/101Reporters) 

Chlorpyrifos is used to kill several pests including insects and worms. Notably, on August 18, 2021, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced a ban on the insecticide that caused neurodevelopmental problems and impaired brain function in children. Both the US and Canada banned its indoor use in 2001, which was later implemented by several other countries. 

“Unfortunately, Chlorpyrifos continues to be in use in India. Since there is no alternative to it, the insecticide is always present in the list of approved sprays that the Department of Horticulture issues every year,” Dar said, adding that Mancozeb, Dithane, Captan, Carboxin and Synthetic Pyrethroids are also commonly used.  

Temperature has a great influence on dissipation pattern and persistence of pesticide on a particular crop in a particular climate, and climatic conditions in Jammu and Kashmir are very different from the rest of the country. “Insecticides are repeatedly applied during the entire period of growth and development, and sometimes even at the fruiting and pre-harvesting stage. Ironically, overuse does not serve any purpose other than affecting the health adversely and making pests resistant to sprays,” Dar said.

To make matters worse, farmers in the Valley do not adhere to the advisories and recommended dosages approved by SKUAST-Kashmir. For instance, ‘The Management Guide for Apple Orchards in Kashmir (2022)’ compiled by the university outlined the cultural and management practices to be adopted, the amount of insecticides, pesticides, acaricide and oils to be used per 100 litres of water, and the type of protective gear to be used. 

Though farmers clearly know about the side effects, they use sprays in different concentrations and proportions on every part of the tree in a desperate attempt to save the crop. “They neither adhere to safety protocols nor wear protective equipment. A stick is used to handle the pesticide mixture. The farmer wears just a mask, and uses no goggles, face shield or protective glasses,” Dar detailed.

Dr Umar Muzzafer, a Young Scientist Fellow of the Department of Health Research working in Srinagar Government Medical College, told 101Reporters that the pesticide exposure happened mostly while preparing or mixing the spray solution and during clean-up of the spraying equipment.

“Exposure can be through skin or inhalation. Skin exposure happens mainly through the face and hands if the farmer has not put on protective clothing. If proper care is not taken, farmers can routinely get exposed to pesticides at a much greater level than what the consumers of those fruits are exposed to,” he said.

Farmers are aware of the side effects, but in desperate attempts to save the crop, they use sprays in different concentrations and proportions on every part of the tree (Photos courtesy of Dr Alamgir Dar/101Reporters) 

study titled ‘Acute Health Effects of Pesticide Exposure among Farmers Directly Involved with Spraying: A Cross-Sectional Pilot Study from Kashmir Valley’ showed the association between exposure to organophosphorus pesticides and various health ailments. It revealed that “neurological complications” were most commonly reported.

“The neurological symptoms included weakness (60.3%), dizziness (44.4%), headache (38.09%), fatigue (30.1%) and muscle pain (19.04%). This was followed by respiratory symptoms like cough (58.7%), cough with phlegm (41.2%) and breathlessness (12.6%), and eye-illness symptoms,” it said.

A surgical oncologist (breast, colorectal and peritoneal surface cancers) at New City Hospital, Srinagar, Dr Shabnum Bashir said the adverse effects of long-term pesticide use included the development of cancers, brain and nervous system damage, and birth defects. Overall cancer cases in Kashmir have seen an alarming rise since the pandemic. 

Bashir said a SKIMS research study on the association of pesticides and brain cancer among the orchard farmers of Kashmir had revealed that all of them had high-grade tumours caused by pesticide exposure. “Mortality in pesticide exposed tumours was 12%,” the 2005-08 study said.

However, the severity of the disease manifested only after several months or years of pesticide exposure. “Farmers should be educated through workshops and awareness campaigns about the larger consequences of pesticide overuse and the necessary precautions,” Bashir explained.

Over 55 per cent of production costs in the fruit sector are being spent on the protection of crops, according to a government report accessed by this reporter. To limit the rampant use of pesticides, the J&K government launched a pilot project in December 2022 at a budget of Rs 27 crore, which listed interventions like cluster-based high-density model orchards, identification of disease-resistant crop varieties and bio-pesticides, and popularising advanced spraying technologies.  

On the possible alternatives, environmental expert Dr Irfan Rashid said farmers should switch to bio-pesticides and biofertilizers. "Biopesticides are compounds that protect crops by killing pests using living bacteria, natural materials, or biomolecules while biofertilizers promote plant and tree growth by enriching the nutrient quality of the soil. “Aquatic weed Azolla, found in Dal Lake in Srinagar city, can act as a biofertiliser,” said Rashid, an assistant professor at the Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir.

“The Lakes and Waterways Development Authority can use the weed removed from the lake to make biofertilisers. It can be converted into a sustainable business model for the larger benefit,” Rashid added.

Meanwhile, Dar said recommended dosage of pesticides was mandatory to keep the crop disease-free. “The concept of biopesticides, derived from animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals, can also be explored. A research on this front in our university is yet to produce any tangible result,” he said. 

Elsewhere, Senior Scientist at Plant Biotechnology and Agro Technology Division CSIR-Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu, Dr Wajid Waheed is studying naturally-occurring plant-derived pesticides like terpenoids

“Our lab at CSIR-IIIM, Jammu is using a molecular approach to understand how these compounds are made by these plants and transfer the molecular machinery to high-value crop or fruit plants, so as to create molecular biodefence factories in these high-value crop and fruit plants where these pathways will get activated once plants are attacked by pests,” Dr Wajid said.

*Names have been changed to protect identities 

Cover Photo: Courtesy of Dr Alamgir Dar/101Reporters

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli


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