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Which 'cide are you on?: How misuse of pesticides poses challenges for Singapore's vegetable supply chain

The misuse of pesticides and other chemical poisons in farming is a challenge for the entire vegetable supply chain. Regulators can step up enforcement, but consumers have a role to play too.

WHICH ‘CIDE ARE YOU ON? The misuse of pesticides and other chemical poisons in farming is a challenge for the entire vegetable supply chain. Regulators can step up enforcement, but consumers have a role to play too.

WHICH ‘CIDE ARE YOU ON? The misuse of pesticides and other chemical poisons in farming is a challenge for the entire vegetable supply chain. Regulators can step up enforcement, but consumers have a role to play too.

“Think of buying organic as a donation or contribution to protect the environment.” - Fung Chee Siang, who owns organic farm Hatiku Agrikultur in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia (above).

The Singapore Food Agency says out of 7,073 vegetable consignments it inspected last year, 497 were rejected. The top three veggies that fail pesticide tests are chilli, parsley and Chinese celery.

“In the organic world we say it’s not organic farming that is too expensive, it’s conventional farming that is too cheap because we’ve left the problem to our future generation. So we push for true cost accounting.” - Tai Seng Yee, executive director of Zenxin Organic Food.

Hatiku Agrikultur grows a small quantity of a wide variety of veggies (above: nasturtium and red kale) and practises crop rotation so that there is not enough food to attract large numbers of pests to feast and multiply in the farm.

MORE than 2,000 vegetable farms dot the slopes of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Many rely on the rivers there for their freshwater supply. But Tai Seng Yee, executive director of Zenxin Organic Food, requires his contract farmers to use only water that's piped from the top of the hill directly to their farms.

Mr Tai says: "We don't take river water or water that has passed through other farms, in order not to take polluted water. For certified organic produce, we need to use a clean water source, we are quite particular about that." He wouldn't be drawn into speaking more about their river: "It is a very sensitive issue."

In 2015, traces of organochlorine pesticides - some of them banned internationally - were found in the surface water and tap water at six different sampling sites in the Cameron Highlands by researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Organochlorines are highly toxic. They break down very slowly in the environment, accumulate in the food chain and in humans, and are known to persist for years after exposure. Endosulfan, which is banned in Malaysia but was detected in the study, causes hormonal disruption, birth defects, and may cause cancer.

Pesticide contamination was higher in areas where agricultural activities were more intense. The cool climate of the Cameron Highlands is ideal for temperate veggies, and the hilly region of Pahang state is a main source of vegetables for Malaysia. In 2019, 16 per cent of Singapore's fresh vegetable imports were from Pahang.

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The study's findings were widely reported by Malaysian media.

But more than five years have passed and the misuse of pesticides in agriculture still persists, says Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, president of Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands. "Illegal pesticides are being smuggled in and farmers mix different ones to create their own cocktail. They mix and try and see what is most effective," he tells The Business Times. "Nobody is doing any audits."

Last year, the European Food Safety Authority's annual monitoring programme reported that Malaysia has the highest incidence of food samples that exceed European maximum residue limits (MRLs) for pesticides, out of 49 countries that export to the European Union but are not members. A MRL is the highest level of a pesticide residue that is legally tolerated in food by national authorities or international food safety standard organisations. If farmers follow the approved pesticide usage pattern, the resulting residues should be no more than the MRL.

MRLs are set with a large safety margin, meaning that food found to exceed MRLs are not necessarily unsafe for consumption. But one can never be too cautious, Mr Ramasamy believes: "If you take (a small dosage of a chemical pesticide) once, it's OK. But if you continuously take that amount, there will be long term effects."

Food safety loopholes

In Singapore, 90 per cent of food is imported. On average, Singapore imported 1,500 tonnes of fresh veggies and 1,200 tonnes of fresh fruits daily in 2019, with Malaysia accounting for 42 per cent of all fresh vegetable imports. Other top import sources include China, India and Australia.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the national authority for food safety, says 7 per cent of vegetable consignments inspected last year were rejected because their pesticide residues exceeded Singapore' limits. It declined to comment on the exact tonnage of vegetables it sampled last year, saying only that 497 consignments were rejected out of 7,073 inspected. The top three veggies that fail pesticide tests are chilli, parsley and Chinese celery.

Industry insiders suspect that many potentially hazardous consignments still slip through the cracks undetected, due to various loopholes that can be exploited under the SFA's system of sample-based testing.

A former employee of a fruit and vegetable importer says his family now cultivates their own vegetable garden here, to reduce their reliance on imported produce: "In my line of work I went to look at farms to source for suppliers. In Malaysia, some of the farmers don't even eat their own lettuce... When you do monocropping on a large scale, you tend to need a lot of pesticides and fungicides because it's a commercial entity. In Cameron Highlands, the groundwater is filled with pesticides and chemicals. They use a lot of hydroponics to grow, and these systems are chemical-based...

"Yes, the SFA does food safety testing, but there are loopholes in the system. It's all sample-based... The people who do the inspections are based in Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. Their office is there, they don't want to create trouble so they are not totally out to get you. Very seldom you are surprise inspected. If they increase policing and enforcement, there will be more vegetables failing the test."

Smuggling is a known problem.

Since 2015, more than 200 cases of illegal imports of fruits and vegetables have been detected. In some cases, traders evaded documentation checks by routinely delivering their products directly to retail markets and restaurants.

But even the trucks that pull into Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre for routine checks upon entering Singapore can get away with under-declaring the quantity of those imported veggies that have a higher risk of failing pesticide tests, or not declaring them at all, says one trader who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan.

For instance, a truck carrying 100kg of veggies might declare that it is carrying only half the weight. If the truck crosses Singapore Customs in the middle of the night, the goods could be offloaded quickly so that only 50kg is left in the truck when the SFA's officers come round in the morning to conduct their checks.

Mr Tan says: "They come in at night because the border is open 24/7. If they are smuggling, SFA won't know unless they check the truck at the border. If they are caught, they can say, 'Aiya! I didn't smuggle, I declared wrongly.'" Most of the veggies inspected daily at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre are from the Cameron Highlands, he adds: "This is because the goods arrive at a good timing which is office hours and convenient for officers... Those veggies from lowland Johor, inspections are only taken once in a blue moon."

Importers can fly under the radar by avoiding the working hours of SFA's inspection officers: "On public holidays they don't work. On Sundays they don't work, people know that."

Smugglers also tend to set up small companies with a turnover of no more than S$1 million so that they don't have to register for the GST consumption tax levied on the import of goods, which makes their produce cheaper.

In response to questions from BT, the SFA said: "With the large amount of vegetables imported into Singapore each day, not every single consignment can be inspected and tested. Similar to food safety authorities around the world, SFA adopts a risk-based approach to food safety. Consignments of higher risks (eg based on non-compliance records of importers) are subjected to more stringent checks."

The challenge for farmers

Pesticides refer to all chemicals that are used to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi, and other pests. Fungicides are used most abundantly by farmers, while herbicides or weedkillers are the most harmful. Most weedkillers are glyphosates. Glyphosate was patented by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name Roundup. Now off-patent, glyphosate is found in various formulations under many different trade names. In 2015, the World Health Organization's cancer agency concluded that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic" to humans.

Mr Tai of Zenxin Organic Food says: "We are not an agricultural country so we don't receive this kind of news (but) there's so much glyphosate residues in everything. They even find it in umbilical cords, in oats... This is something that we should be worried about."

Yet, many factors contribute to the misuse of pesticides in agriculture. To safeguard their yield, farmers are sometimes forced to apply pesticides in heavier dosages than recommended.

Fung Chee Siang, who owns organic farm Hatiku Agrikultur in Malaysia, says: "Say your cabbage has been growing for the past three months and you are about to harvest in a week. Then you have a sudden pest infestation, and when they come they come by the thousands. Now as a farmer, do you choose to spray pesticides to kill, or do you stick to the guidelines such as pre-harvest intervals?"

Bad weather creates even more problems, says Mr Tan, the trader: "When the weather is bad, farmers worry that the plant may fall sick and they apply more fungicide to prevent rot.... When the weather is not so nice, the plants digest the chemicals slower and take a longer time to pass out the residue."

This means that the pre-harvest interval - the time required for pesticide residues in a plant to fall below the MRL after it is sprayed - increases. So a pre-harvest interval of 10 days, as the pesticide factory might recommend, could rise to 12 days, and farmers who harvest too soon don't allow the plants enough time to reduce the residues to a safe level.

Mr Tan says: "This is one of the common problems, a genuine problem... Fruits are easier to manage. When you apply chemicals, fruit takes a few months to fruit, by then there is no more pesticide residue. But veggies, you apply today and harvest tomorrow. The time to grow them is shorter."

Meanwhile, a growing movement is encouraging consumers to buy imperfect produce to reduce food waste. NTUC FairPrice says it does not penalise suppliers for the aesthetic appeal of produce. But farmers say that veggies are still more marketable when they meet certain cosmetic standards, instead of being off-colour or having more holes in their leaves.

Dairy Farm, which owns the Cold Storage and Giant supermarkets, says: "Should a particular shipment fail to meet the set standards, this will not impact the cost but may instead impact the volume purchased."

Mr Fung says: "Often we point fingers at farmers who use all these dreadful chemicals. On the other hand it is the consumer that demands such blemish-free, young and tender veggies. Then the supermarkets are forced to stock them, and the farmers are forced to use chemical pesticides and fertilisers."

The true cost of agrochemicals

It is possible to grow fruits and veggies without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilisers, and this is what organic farming is about.

However, many farmers choose to stick to conventional farming methods because they are less labour-intensive and more economically viable.

Mr Tai says of his organic farms: "Our yield is one third or half of a farm that does monocropping. We don't use high-nitrogen fertilisers (nitrate leakage hurts the environment), so we grow slower."

Organic veggies are also more expensive than non-organic ones due to the higher cost of production. Mr Tai hopes that consumer mindsets will change: "In the organic world we say it's not organic farming that is too expensive, it's conventional farming that is too cheap because we've left the problem to our future generation. So we push for true cost accounting."

For example, the cost of cleaning up polluted rivers should be factored into the cost of growing veggies using the synthetic inputs of industrial agriculture.

Mr Fung adds: "Think of buying organic as a donation or contribution to protect the environment. (In industrial agriculture), farmers use chemical fertilisers to make their produce grow fast and big and juicy. Who is going to pay for the contamination and the pollution? We've got to watch our purchases and be responsible consumers. So please don't use pretty terms like you are an environmentalist or that you care for the environment when you buy these (kinds of produce)."

On his farm in the Cameron Highlands, Mr Fung grows a small quantity of a wide variety of veggies and practises crop rotation so that there is not enough food to attract large numbers of pests to feast and multiply in the farm. Multiple cropping and crop rotation also help to keep the soil healthy.

"To prevent rot, we don't grow the veggies so tightly together so this reduces the risk of contamination and disease, and there is less demand for fertilisation when you have fewer cabbages in the same amount of space," he adds.

The unorthodox Mr Fung also believes that positive energy plays a key role in his setup. So-called "light stickers" from the Bai Shi Yin Technology Research Centre can be found on the main water pipe to his farm. "So when we irrigate, when we water our plants it carries positive energy... The sticker carries positive energy. This is where the kungfu is," he says with a chuckle.

Asked which insects have speckled the leaves of his spinach and bak choy with holes, Mr Fung replies: "There are a couple... seasonal ones. It's hard to name them for you. The thing is, they eat some, and we eat some. And we live in harmony."

The transition from industrial to organic farming can be challenging, says Mr Tai: "You have to look for the market. You have to have the passion and technology."

Zenxin Organic Food has created a network of farmers who share knowledge: "Before that everybody didn't talk to each other, now we've improved on scale. We're aligned to what the market wants, because we have access to the market, so we can advise on this. All our farmers stay with us for a long time. We fix prices for them. We tell them the quantity we will get from them. And we get all of them certified organic. It takes three years to be fully certified."

Some consumers remain sceptical of organic food, and justifiably so. Now and then, products that claim to be "organic" do fail pesticide tests.

Mr Tan says: "There is no authority policing what is 'organic'. Big supermarkets request organic documentation but still nobody polices this. The SFA, it's not their area to police. They only check for food safety."

Consumers should demand traceability, Mr Tai believes: "Ask who are the suppliers. Ask if they can trace (their food) back to their source. See if they are holding a certificate, or if they are just using the logo (in their packaging). If not, they should not put the logo. It's not really that regulated by law but you can do your own checks.

"When you buy our products, we can tell you who packed it, and which farm supplied to the packing house on that day, what inputs does that farm use. Even our fertiliser factory is certified organic. We open our farm for the public to visit."

In recent years, the grow-your-own movement has also taken root here, with more consumers cultivating their own edible gardens, even as various urban farming initiatives take off. In June, the National Parks Board offered free seed packets to households to encourage more people to grow their own veggies to improve food resilience amid Covid-19. Demand was so strong that the number of seed packets given out had to be raised from 150,000 to 400,000.

Mr Fung hopes that supermarkets and the authorities can do a better job of policing whether produce is actually organic, to give consumers more assurance.

Meanwhile, he has given his word to retailers who carry his produce, in case they come across consumers who ask questions they can't answer: "Don't even try to explain to them. Tell them where this produce is from and who grows them. That is your traceability. Encourage them to make an appointment to come up to my farm. I will take them around and show them how it is done.

"It is unfair for consumers to pay a premium for produce if at the same time they are not 100 per cent sure if it is organic produce. You charge them an arm and a leg, but they are not confident. So it is my duty to open my door to such visits to let them see and let them understand."

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