More than a decade ago, a group of Dutch scientists, undertook a study in Sialkot, from where fresh vegetables are supplied to the vegetable markets of Lahore and Islamabad. A full growing cycle of the vegetables was observed, along with water sources, soil and periodic testing of the growing vegetables. The results of the tests confirmed that the vegetables were not meant for human consumption.
Around the same time, one came to know of young girls, not yet in their teens, who were being treated for cancer. These girls were from the tobacco-growing areas and their duty during the harvesting season was to string the leaves for the drying chambers. Today, tobacco requires up to 16 sprays. An effort to establish an extensive programme to raise natural predators for pests failed as the pesticide lobby was too strong. A similar scenario is prevailing in the cotton-growing belt with cotton-pickers exposed to the remnants of the extensive spraying on the crops.
Cotton requires a staggering 125 million kilogrammes of pesticides annually in the US alone. Pesticides are possibly the greatest toxic threat to our soil, air, water and natural communities because they often leave permanent after-effects and their toxicity increases as they are consumed up the food chain. Many pesticides are known carcinogens and can also cause immune-deficiency disorders.
Cottonseed cake, a major animal feed, is also a carrier of pesticides, besides freshly grown fodder. And so, starting from the tip of our mountain ranges, where cottonseed cake is feeding stall-fed animals, pesticides are seeping into our soil throughout the country. Perhaps, we need to look towards the West where efforts are underway to find alternative solutions to these hazards. The focus in the West and in China is on the benefits of cultivating hemp (cannabis sativa). The vast potential of this plant was acknowledged during the last decade after Beijing’s Hemp Research Centre was established. Advanced technologies in reducing the lignin content in hemp were developed, which turned it into an easily workable fibre for highly sophisticated textiles. Twenty-thousand hectares of hemp have already been planted in China with the added benefit providing income for millions of small-scale farmers as large areas of cotton-growing land is freed for food production, besides reducing the input of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on cotton crops.
The present shortage of wood fibre at the global level has also contributed considerably to ignite interest in hemp. Plant breeders have developed hemp varieties with increased fibre content. And so, the world is moving on, while it seems that we are meant to stagnate. Or, is there a spark igniting?