In the light of high pesticide concentrations in some imported vegetables, the issue is becoming a growing concern in the country, much more than the issue of food security.

Pesticide content in the imported vegetables is the talk of the town, so to speak. It’s in the media and the people are concerned. It is good that media and the relevant agencies are making efforts to inform the people. The fact that the issue is being talked about in various forums is good because that shows we are really concerned about our food self-sufficiency.

Achieving food self-sufficiency is one of the most important goals of the nation and earnest efforts have to be made to make it happen. It is not that nothing has been done yet to realise the goal. The government has established the National Organic Programme and National Framework for Organic Programme so that what we produce and consume is not only safe but is also healthy.

Food safety should be at the centre of public awareness programmes as it is in the advanced countries where besides periodic public awareness programmes systematic academic debates are held regularly to educate the public. People are so made aware about different international food safety standards and are guided adequately and efficiently so that they are able to make informed choices when it comes to food. Consumers are able to select food based on the information they have about certain food items.

In Bhutan, though, people are still very ignorant, especially when it comes to food safety awareness.  It is largely because Bhutanese society has evolved through subsistence natural farming system.

This is perhaps the reason why some sections of population are less aware about the very concept of food safety. They do not know that foods can be contaminated by agro-chemicals in the farming processes. And those that are aware about the food safety standards are dependent on imported foods in the market. They are, really, left with no option than to buy what is available in the market.  Of many food items in the markets, particularly vegetables, are imported from India. As per media reports, some of the vegetables come with high concentration of harmful chemicals. Many are really not safe for consumption, we are told.

It is, therefore, only right the country’s food regulatory authority has banned the import of some of the vegetable and food items in the interest of food safety and health of the consumers. We commend the initiatives made by the agencies concerned.

Health risks posed by the contaminated vegetables may far out-weigh cost of the locally produced vegetables. If people can understand that the cost of treatment resulting from consumption of vegetables with high pesticide content is going to be expensive, they will be compelled to make prudent choices.

It is, therefore, the right time to promote increased production of all food items domestically. We need to give our organic dream a little oomph. Consumption of unsafe foods may be contributing heavily to the rising number of cases of people with non-communicable diseases. And, by the way, cases of non-communicable diseases in the country are increasing alarmingly, particularly among the young. If the trend of consuming contaminated imported vegetables continues, the number of associated health diseases may also shoot up drastically.

We are a developing country. And this is really the advantage we have. We can pave our path right now the way we want it. We can decide how to produce enough that is also safe for our consumption. And we already have a goal, a national goal to direct us. That makes our dream all the more achievable. What we seem to lack is the real effort. We have not been able to rouse ourselves to doing it while we still have time. Still we are not late.

Creating consumer awareness on food safety would probably help us transit safely. Also promotion of locally produced safe food needs to be drastically up-scaled by putting in an appropriate policy as well as the corresponding resources. We have BAFRA to begin with. Suppliers should take moral responsibility for the kind of food items they supply for general consumption.

The inclusion of regulation pertaining to chemical contaminants for the suppliers to abide by while supplying the vegetables and strict and efficient monitoring at the entry point should essentially improve the situation. The installation of High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) at three key entry points to instantly test the level of contamination with optimum skills and efficient man power following the standard limit of contaminants would sufficiently deter the inflow of contaminated vegetables.

To instill a sense of self-responsibility, the general public should be empowered with the clear understanding of food safety and regulation pertaining to it. The protection of consumer rights is as important as protecting the right of service providers. Therefore, the situation requires more from the regulatory bodies like BAFRA by keeping the contaminated food at bay and by creating rigorous public awareness about food safety.

Contributed by 

Ram Chandra Bajgai

Sherubtse College