Food Contamination, Human Health and the State

3 February 2014 02:02 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The protection of the food chain from possible contamination by toxic chemicals is a major challenge faced by many countries around the world. While the excessive use of toxic chemicals in agriculture continues to be a major public health issue, the spread of genetically-modified (GM) crops in countries like the USA has created considerable anxiety among consumers regarding the potential health risks posed by such agricultural produce.  Increasing demand for food worldwide encouraged many countries to adopt modern industrial methods of farming that usually include the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. Moreover, the post-harvest management of agricultural commodities that often involves agro-processing and use of chemicals for preservation and ripening of fruits at times poses serious health risks.

The increasing incidence of certain diseases such as cancer and chronic kidney disease in recent years in Sri Lanka has brought to the surface the issue of the contamination of the food chain by toxic chemical agents. On the other hand, deliberate use of chemicals and other harmful substances in the process of producing food items and for ripening fruits is also widely reported from different parts of the country.

Production and post-harvest management of food are not underground activities like the production and sale of illicit alcohol and addictive drugs. So, the monitoring of agricultural and trade practices that are harmful to human health should not be a major challenge for the relevant authorities. What is also noteworthy is that there are many agencies and personnel maintained at public expense to look into these issues and take appropriate action to regulate and control unhealthy practices. Yet, ironically, such practices have continued unabated, posing increasing health risks to the general public.

" Increasing incidence of certain diseases such as cancer and chronic kidney disease in recent years in Sri Lanka has brought to the surface the issue of the contamination of the food chain by toxic chemical agents. On the other hand, deliberate use of chemicals and other harmful substances in the process of producing food items and for ripening fruits is also widely reported from different parts of the country. "

A state-controlled TV channel recently went to town with a talk show on the subject as if they had found something new and that the people in this country have been totally unaware of the problem. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the hapless masses were fully aware of the issue but the authorities have done precious little to arrest the trend and the people have continued to suffer as a result.

As is well known, Sri Lanka has perhaps the largest state sector for a country of its size. There are at least 1.3 million state sector employees for a population of just over 20 million. This is more than one official for every twenty persons. We have established hundreds of state agencies to deal with almost all significant issues. The state uses public funds to maintain public officers in their thousands. Yet, many issues have remained largely unattended. The unresolved public health issues mentioned above are not exceptions.

The reason for the prevailing sorry state of affairs is two-fold. Firstly, most state institutions are highly politicised and are used to accommodate political supporters at the highest level. Even a cursory glace at a cross - section of state institutions would attest to this fact. We have come to a situation where anybody can be appointed to any position, often with no regard for the requirements of the position and the actual background of the person appointed. When such appointments are made, the main objective of the appointed person often is to serve his or her interests and then safeguard the interests of the appointing authorities. The employees of the organisation naturally become demoralised and do not give their best to the institution. The result is the decline of the relevant institution, thereby undermining the very purpose for which the organisation was established in the first place.

Secondly, the state sector has expanded rapidly over the years leading to a proliferation of institutions dealing with diverse subjects. Yet, the allocation of public resources is not equitable across diverse institutions, as certain ministries are favoured over others. So, many institutions do not have adequate resources and therefore, they cannot function optimally. Once again, the actual distribution of public funds among ministries and the institutions that come under their purview reflects the above reality. For instance, institutions that are supposed to deliver personalised services to households, i.e. elderly care, child protection, disability care, migrant family services, care for the mentally ill, etc,, often cannot deploy officers in the field and attend to the needs of vulnerable groups due to the lack of necessary resources. The officers, who should regularly visit families and attend to the needs of vulnerable persons, remain in their offices for want of transport facilities, etc. Thousands of graduates recruited to public service in the recent past remain largely untrained, randomly deployed and grossly underutilised at numerous state institutions.

No doubt there are several institutions that are directly responsible for monitoring possible contamination of the food chain and to take preventive measures to stamp out negative practices. For instance, the over use of agro-chemicals in the central mountains naturally contaminates the rivers, reservoirs and canals in downstream areas. Furthermore, if the farmers and traders use harmful chemicals and other substances in handling food stocks following harvest, consumer protection authorities, standard institutions, health officials and law-enforcement agencies have a clear responsibility to regulate and control the practices involved. Yet, if certain negative practices have been going on for many years leading to serious adverse consequences, it points to a colossal failure on the part of the relevant authorities. As is well known, the decline of the quality of drinking water in many areas has led to widespread diseases and public protests, yet, the relevant agencies have not yet been able to find a lasting remedy.

The reasons for such failures can be many. It is the responsibility of the state to find out where the lapses have occurred, reasons for such lapses and take effective measures to arrest the trend. Public welfare in modern societies is essentially a primary responsibility of the state. State institutions, public officials and political leaders are maintained at public expense to safeguard public interest that includes health and well-being of the people. If this does not happen, then there is no justification for maintaining them at public expense. Public funds are collected through numerous taxes, not just to finance endless electoral processes and meet the wants of an ever expanding political class but to improve the life chances and the well-being of the hapless masses. Unfortunately, many members of the public do not seem to know what they should expect from the leaders they regularly elect. The leaders, in turn continue to divert a disproportionate share of public funds to finance the electoral process and related activities rather than to strengthen and professionalise state institutions that are meant to address the diverse issues faced by the general public.

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