Any substance which, when added to the soil, enhances plant growth and helps to get a better yield of crops is called a fertiliser. The chemical fertilisers help to add the micronutrients nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to the soil but they are responsible for increase in cancer cases throughout the areas of the world in which they have been used. The problem with the use of fertilisers is that it is myopic view of what constitutes soil health, which directly affects the food grains that we eat.
Chemical fertilisers and pesticides causing cancer in Punjab
The area around Bhatinda, called the Malwa region in the state of Punjab, has become the cancer belt of India. There is a daily train that runs from the city to Bikaner, a city in the state of Rajasthan, which is called Cancer Express. This is because Bikaner has a low-priced cancer treatment facility called Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre. On an average, more than 70 cancer patients travel from the Bhatinda to Bikaner daily.
The region of Malwa accounts for 75 per cent of pesticides used in Punjab. According to the State of Environment Report, use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and extensive irrigation that has led to the problem of increasing rates of cancer in the region. Consumption of fertilisers in the Malwa region is 177 kg per hectare while the national average is 90 kg.
Impact of fertilisers on soil health and its effect on human health
Soil health is based on maintaining a balance of micronutrients, macronutrients and even microbial health. There are certain microbes that help to improve soil health but use of chemical fertilisers kills them. It is not as easy as artificially adding nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
- One of the ill-effects of adding fertilisers is that you then need to use pesticides in considerable amount to control the insects that prey on the crops. The pesticides make the soil addicted to it, so to say. To maintain productivity, you need to constantly keep increasing the amount sprayed.
- Biggest issue arising out of use of chemical fertilisers is that they seep into groundwater leading to its contamination. The nitrogen compound can remain in groundwater for decades and this has a cumulative negative effect on human health. According to research undertaken at University of Wisconsin, Madison, the cumulative effect of fertilisers with pesticide is that it has an adverse impact on immune and endocrine systems.
- A research in USA showed that farmers using non-organic methods are at a six times increased risk of contracting cancer compared to other people.
- Contamination of water table in Bhatinda due to increased fertiliser use has caused them to enter into food chain. Carcinogens such as heptachlor and ethion can be found in vegetables, bovine milk and even human milk.
One is inclined to think that perhaps it is justified in view of high productivity. Not so. The response of agricultural productivity declines to increased fertiliser use and India’s Finance Minister had expressed his concern for this in 2010.
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