By Kavitha KurugantionAug. 01, 2020in Perspectives

On 29th July 2020, a full page ‘advertorial’ paid for by the Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), an NGO of the pesticides industry in India, was published by Business Standard. The website of CCFI says that one of its objectives is to “build a responsible industry image”. 

Advertorial spaces – which are neither advertisements nor opinion pieces nor journalistic news coverage – seem to be unfair spaces given to particular entities for publishing whatever the entities want by paying a fee, without editorial oversight, when such an oversight has to apply to everything that a paper publishes. When used with malicious intent, such a space becomes a paid space for slander and defamation, with the accused parties not getting a chance to present their views and evidences.

CCFI in this case put out a screaming headline “Beware of Foreign Funded Environmental NGOs – They are paid to malign Indian agriculture”. There are at least four things wrong with the headline itself as connected with the rest of the article. 

To begin with, it insinuated that foreign funding was only and always a sinister thing and that “foreign funding” should be interpreted in only one way —- only in the context of NGOs receiving such funds, and not when foreign markets are built for revenues of corporations or when political parties receive such funding or when even governments receive bilateral and multilateral funding or when an economy itself is built by inviting FDI and FII. All the latter contexts of receiving foreign finances are seen as benign and only the first as sinister! In fact, the pesticides industry itself was one of the first beneficiaries of foreign funding by philanthropies when the Green Revolution was ushered into India. CCFI as a non-profit association is probably supported by business revenues earned in foreign lands. Let us not forget that the Indian pesticide industry has a larger foreign market than a domestic market! This red herring around ‘foreign funding’ therefore is irrational to say the least and foreign funding being a measure of patriotism and nationalism is highly questionable.

Two, it lists out funded organisations and individuals along with non-funded ones without making a distinction between the two, other than clubbing foreign-funded ones with Indian-funded. 

Three, it does not limit its objectionable tirade to just NGOs but begins naming scientists in public sector research bodies which are not foreign funded or environmental NGOs. 

Four, the names listed have people who, far from maligning Indian agriculture, are working closely with farmers to provide sustainable livelihoods to them. Farmers who are associated with Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab stand as silent testimonies to this for instance.  

The advertorial says that spreading ‘fake news’ about ‘excessive agro-chemical use’ and ‘high pesticide residues’ in our agricultural commodities with false and fabricated studies and stories are how these ‘foreign funded (that too EU) environmental NGOs indulge in scare-mongering. Well, Mr Rajju Shroff and CCFI might as well have accused the Prime Minister of India of scare-mongering then, when from the ramparts of the Red Fort on India’s Independence Day in 2019, he gave a clarion call to farmers to reduce and phase out agro-chemicals and save Mother Earth. State governments are asking for bans and rigorous regulation, and are investing in non-chemical farming. Judges and Courts are taking suo-motu notice of the menace of pesticides. I invite CCFI to brand them all as foreign-funded forces out to please their donors, as it foolishly branded others in this advertorial.  

CCFI, as it usually does, presented comparative picture of volume of pesticide consumption in India forgetting that activists are not talking about ‘excessive agro-chemical use’ but about the adverse impacts of deadly pesticides. So, it is about quantities as well as which pesticides, the conditions of use, which exposure routes for farmers and consumers including when. In a country where farming operations are mostly manual, and where most consumers are in fact in rural India, exposure to pesticides is more direct and through more routes (it is not just about contaminated food). And if those pesticides are also known for their health and environmental effects, that too in the context of a significant proportion of malnourished population that is more vulnerable to such environmental toxins, there is a definite cause for concern which cannot be brushed aside as scare-mongering. Evidence around pesticide bans leading to a decline in suicide rates related to intentional ingestion of pesticides cannot be brushed aside. The fact that this chemical agriculture paradigm exists and is promoted by the industry and its lobby bodies, even after the science of non-chemical agriculture has emerged strongly, is unwise as well as unscientific. 

Coming specifically to allegations against me – the fact that I was associated with Greenpeace India is being thrown as an accusation, ignoring the fact that this international environmental organisation has indeed been instrumental and successful in establishing environmental governance internationally and nationally in accepted scientific and legal frameworks. I was associated with it for around 17 months, way back in 2002-03 and I am proud of my association with the organisation, however brief it was. 

For about a decade now, I am associated with a volunteer-driven informal network which is committed to Indian farmers’ rights and in improving their livelihoods sustainably. Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) is not funded and is not even a legal entity. It is not an NGO and for certain activities and events, crowd-funding from Indians is adopted. The network does not take up funded/projectised work, but collects money only when needed. This money does not get used to pay any of us or volunteers, and accounts are shared with donors within a month as a norm. There are no paid employees in ASHA.

Another accusation is around the “un-restricted access and ease with which India’s foreign-funded activists gain confidential documents from the government departments”. With the illustration cited, CCFI is presuming that I gained access to the Pesticides Management Bill 2020 (PMB2020) through the Agriculture Ministry. It is laughable to think that someone like me who often gets very critical of government policies will get access to a Bill in that manner in a country like India. The Agriculture Ministry looks at activists like me as a thorn in their side rather than critically engage with me and take inputs in a healthy fashion. 

As an advocacy platform, we keep an active watch on policy-making and legislative-making processes in the country, and feed on-ground experiences into these. We keep ourselves informed about important Bills to be debated and acted upon. A legislative Bill being accessed from Parliamentarians does not involve any wrong-doing and MPs who would like to contribute meaningfully to the debate in legislative processes do seek inputs from experts on the subject. All of this is legitimate democratic processes at work. It was the same that happened with the PMB2020. This is what a healthy democracy is about, and CCFI cannot tarnish this as excessive reach and influence by attributing some sinister donor-driven motivations in this case.   

About the bold decision of Indonesia to ban numerous pesticides under President Suharto – this was mentioned by me to point out that the overnight Indonesian ban on 57 pesticides in 1986 did not lead to productivity declines, whereas the industry indulges in scare-mongering by presenting prospects of starvation without pesticides. Talking about Indonesian use of pesticides in dollar terms is very unscientific of CCFI in this advertorial and critiques of other studies that measured consumption in similar terms from Indonesia pointed out the same. The CCFI’s misinterpretation of what was actually said is similar to the earlier-mentioned accusation around “excessive use of pesticides”. There are numerous published papers in the public domain that show that Indonesia gained in yields after the bold decision to ban. 

Indonesian experience with incentivising and promoting pesticide use is quite negative and documented by FAO amongst others. It was only with an IPM approach that followed the overnight bans from the 1986 decree that their rice production was saved and improved. Papers by Pingali, Kenmore, Ooi and others exist for more information on this. 

There was no half-truth in what was argued by me – that yields were not affected after the ban. And that happened because of the institutional approaches adopted by Indonesia in the form of Farmer Field Schools that improve pest literacy of farmers. That is the kind of agro-ecological approach that advocates like me in India are asking for, and are in fact arguing that we can go some steps further than IPM with existing science and experiential evidence – those approaches include NPM and organic/natural farming methods. 

In fact, what is questionable is CCFI’s argument that Indonesia has more pesticide use now by citing some pesticide expenditure figures in dollars. In terms of volume data of pesticide consumption, FAO shows a decline. Mariyono et al (2010) showed pesticide use declines, after pesticide subsidies were removed, 57 chemicals banned and IPM scaled up.

Pesticide industry’s ignorance/disregard for science and scientific research is apparent from the tools it deploys to raise questions about published papers. The regular practice for advancement of science is peer reviewing before publishing which in itself is supposed to screen fake science. And if there are glaring errors despite this mechanism, counters and comments can always be published in the same journal and journals ought not to turn down such requests in ordinary course. In this day and age of digital media, the industry can choose to publish detailed critiques on a separate website and also send letters to the scientist concerned and the research institution. But that is not how the industry chooses to advance science. It shows its unscientific attitude by seeking to intimidate not just activists but scientists and researchers. Veterans in the pesticides industry exhibit a certain vicious and vindictive response by resorting to SLAPP suits to silence even scientific research. And now, this tool of “advertorials” to peddle their fake news, to intimidate and slander. 

All in all, the advertorial of CCFI is full of lies and falsehoods. I (and several others named in the advertorial) am not foreign-funded, supporting Indian farmers and farming has been my life’s mission, ASHA is not an NGO and I don’t represent any NGO, the references to me in two places in the advertorial are incorrect and importantly, foreign funding is not sinister as is sought to be portrayed with screaming, scaremongering headlines.    

It is clear that the industry is scared of losing its markets as aware farmers and other citizens shun pesticides and seek to tighten regulation. It is fearful of the impending ban on 27 deadly pesticides and the new regulatory regime that is likely to emerge after Pesticides Management Bill 2020 is discussed and passed – it is essentially scared of democratic citizen action and post-modern science. 

But that does not justify the publishing of the advertorial in any way. Business Standard providing the space for the advertorial for earning some revenue is totally unacceptable. A brief “correction” published on the front page did nothing to correct the wrongdoing by the paper and this author will continue to pursue all options available to her to seek redressal not just against personal defamation, but for a public interest matter related to advertorial spaces themselves. 

  • Kavitha Kuruganti, a non-foreign-funded activist out to support Indian farmers and farming as her life’s mission along with several like-minded committed co-travellers, who does not believe that foreign funding has only sinister motivations and outcomes

First published on the author’s blog

The B S advertorial

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