Poison in the calabash

By A. B. Kafui Kanyi

Palm wine remains a much-loved local drink for many Ghanaians. It commands a very large constituency despite competition from local and foreign beverages.

With or without adverts, lovers of “palmi”- young and old, know where to find the sweet, whitish smooth beverage enjoyed mostly in calabashes.

For many families, the relationship with the local wine, either for business or consumption is tradition, which must continue from one generation to the other.

This could be due to its acclaimed nutritional value of nicotine acid, vitamin C, protein, thiamine, iron and vitamin B1, B2, B3, and B6 among others.

However, the abuse of agro-chemicals in tapping the wine is gradually making its consumption unsafe.

Many tappers are resorting to the use of harmful insecticides to control organisms that cause rot at the incision point of the palm trunk. This contaminates the drink with residues of the harmful chemicals.

Farm visits and close observations by Ghana News Agency (GNA) show that some tappers are using DDT, Endrin, Aldrin, Methyl Bromide and other banned agrochemicals in controlling organisms at the incision point of the palm trunks.

The GNA found a number of empty containers of such chemicals in some palm plantations and sites where tapping is being done.

A 65-year old Palm wine tapper said and his colleagues sometimes take the containers home and put salt in them for domestic use.

There is unconfirmed report of how a 70-year old man died on his farm in a community near Ho, a few hours after gulping two calabashes full of adulterated palm wine.

But palm wine is not the only drink or food that is affected by the abuse of agrochemicals. A good number of farmers use agrochemicals wrongly on farm produce including vegetables and cereals.

Studies reveal that small scale farmers, mostly in rural areas are unable to read manufacturer’s instructions on agrochemicals, and unfortunately, dealers and shop assistants in agrochemicals also fail to educate them on the use of the chemicals.

Consequently, these farmers apply wrong concentrations on their crops, plants and vegetables.

The result is that, chemical residues sip into the crops and make them very injurious to consumers.

Also, farmers, either ignorantly or due to inability to raise money at the right time, apply “systemic chemicals” when crops and plants are at the flowering stage. These chemicals, according to experts remain in the crops and plants even after harvesting.

There are news reports in the country of families dying moments after eating okro, which was later found to have been sprayed with harmful chemicals few days before harvesting.

At an agricultural development forum in Ho, some participants noted that the concentration of chemical residue in some food crops and plants is so high that even after cooking, such foods do not attract even flies.

Some farmers are said to mix two or more chemicals with the intention of completely wiping out pests in one application without thinking of the effects on the crops on consumers.

Another concern is the dipping of fruits and vegetables in chemicals to ripe faster. Banana is one fruit, which “enjoys” the treatment. Farmers or sellers quite often dip banana in carbide and within a short period, it becomes ripe for consumption.

The case of tomatoes is quite common. When demand for the vegetable is high, farmers apply chemicals to make it appear ready for use.

Scientists from the University of Montreal and Harvard University in May 2010, according to Toxics Action Centre, released a study, which found that exposure to pesticide residues on vegetables and fruits may double a child’s risk of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder-a condition which could cause inattention and impulsivity in children.

The Centre says acute dangers arising from consuming agrochemical residue such as eye irritation and damage could sometimes be dramatic and occasionally fatal.

It says the effects may occur years after minimal exposure to pesticides in the environment or from chemical residue, is ingested through food and water.

Dr Francis Zotor, a Nutritionist and Acting Director, International Programmes, University of Health and Allied Sciences, says abuse of agrochemicals and the consumption of chemical residues could disrupt the genetic formation of the individual over time.

Another study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health found a six fold increase in risk factor for Autism Spectrum Disorders for children of women who were exposed to organ chlorine pesticides.

It is for these reasons that farmers ought to use chemicals judiciously for good yields and less negative effect on consumers.

So, for instance an okro farmer should not apply “systemic chemicals” when the vegetable starts flowering or fruiting just because he or she spots pests on the plant.

At these stages, farmers could consider botanicals like chilli pepper, soap, neem extracts (leaves and seeds) or onion/garlic water spray. They could also use wood ash and try other traditional pest control methods.

Experts say the botanicals have short withdrawer period and are best when crops are flowering or fruiting.

The use of pesticides in homes, schools and parks must also be checked. These are places children are found and abuse of the chemical could cause dizziness, depression, muscle and joint pains.

Whilst farmers and consumers are taking precautions, it is imperative for Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) to monitor the use of the about 393 approved agrochemicals in the country as at May 2013 and stop the return of banned chemicals, which are ending up in human bodies.

Mr Frank Mattah, Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA), Volta Region, said the current situation called for the GSA to disallow agrochemicals that could pose serious health concerns to consumers into the market as done in developed countries.

The Environmental Protection Agency in collaboration with the Plant Protection and Regulatory Services Directorate of MOFA must also ensure that agrochemical dealers and attendants are effectively educated on the dangers involved in the use of the chemicals.

This would put them in better position to educate farmers on the use of agrochemicals.

We eat to live and it is important farmers use agrochemicals cautiously and more importantly use bio-chemicals or botanicals. GNA

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