The Daily Star and Shwapno organised a roundtable titled “Good agricultural practices for ensuring food safety” on July 31, 2018. Here we publish a summary of the discussion.
Brig Gen (Retd.) Shahedul Anam, Associate Editor, The Daily Star
We can be rightly proud of our agricultural sector in Bangladesh. Even when we were one-third of the current population in the initial days post-independence, we were the gross importers of food grains. Now with three times the population, we are able to feed our people through our agriculture sector.
Food can be contaminated in two ways, one of which is unintentional, i.e. when farmers, out of ignorance, use more amount of insecticide that they ought to, and one of which is a deliberate measure to maximize profits exploited by producers who use harmful chemicals to fatten their products.
It is very important to ensure that what we discuss here is transmitted to other stakeholders, including farmers, producers, retailers and consumers, among others. What we discuss today should not be a one-off event. I also believe that there has to be an interface of the public sector with the private sector to guarantee effective communication that ensures that the food we consume is safe.
Sabbir Hasan Nasir, Executive Director, ACI Logistics Ltd.
In Shwapno, we believe that access to safe food at an affordable price is a right and not a privilege. We think our farmers need to grow and not just grow their business; their health and their wellbeing matters. So, how do we do this? We have initiated a practice called “sensing by doing”, and have several sensors such as regulatory bodies, media, academia, institutions like GlobalG.A.P. and mostly importantly, our consumers, to help us take this forward.
Our consumers have immense faith on us and they believe we could go above and beyond by following global standards. It means not only making sure the store chillers maintain 2-4 degrees Celsius for freezing meat or zero degrees for fish; they want us to go beyond our boundaries and check what is going on in the fields. That's something we capture through our sensors connected to the consumers. And that's why when Kristian made a global call for action, I responded. We are probably one of the few and first retailers from this region to work in this regard. But I wonder why hasn't others preceded us in this regard, even in India? I think this is important and I think this is what matters. Because if you don't measure the pesticide and residual level in the crops, it means you are not managing it well. Now, the question is, how do you measure? We need a lot of accredited labs in this country. We need to create an integrated law which can capture the voice of the consumers as well as the private sectors.
It's not only the producer, processor or retailer, sometimes even the consumers and their lifestyle affect food safety. In some cases, we learnt that milk bought from our store is kept in room temperature for hours. This can cause microbiological contamination. So, building public awareness about food safety is very important, which is what Shwapno is trying to do right now.
Shwapno is the only retailer in Bangladesh which has directly approached farmers for their produce and paid them in cash. How can we scale this up? The government should design an incentive for the private sector to come up with such good practices to ensure further growth.
Zubayer Mahmud Hasan, Manager, Business Development, ACI Logistics Ltd. (Shwapno)
Shwapno works with around 3000 farmers around the country. We have 28 collection points and more than 4,000 people work in our supply chain. We serve 1.5 million families every month, and for that volume, we try to source 46 percent of our products directly from our partner farms.
In the existing value chain process, the farmers' products go through a channel of intermediaries who take a big chunk of the money from both the farmer and the customer. We have tried to eliminate this channel of intermediaries and have instead implemented a modern supply chain with a sophisticated distribution centre and state-of-the-art chillers for safe refrigeration. Through this process, we are trying to save the money that would traditionally go to the intermediaries, thereby protecting customers by providing them better value for money, and the farmers as well.
However, there are some looming threats. From 1997 to 2010, pesticide usage in food production has increased eight folds. With the increasing use of pesticide in food production comes the threat of dangerous diseases like leukemia, lung cancer, and birth effects, among others.
We have tried to talk to farmers to find out what makes them so dependent on pesticides and chemicals. The first reason they mention is the fear of harvest loss, as they argue that even if they stop using pesticides on their products, other farmers won't do the same. Then there is the pressure of market demand. In many cases, we've found that farmers aren't even aware of the dangers of using insecticides and there is a lack of supervision from both the private sector and the government. Finally, as customers themselves are not completely aware of the threat of pesticides and other contaminants in their food, retailers don't feel the need to pay much attention to this issue.
To combat this situation, Shwapno has come up with its 'Shuddho Project'. Through this project, we have tried to maintain the government approved PHI levels in all of our products. We have also tried to ensure that no banned chemicals are used in the whole process and have also introduced alternate pest control methods, such as sticky traps which attract insects. We even maintain controlled application of the safe chemicals used on the produce we sell. We also try to ensure documentation of the agriculture process, from seeding to application of pesticides to harvesting.
We formed a Farmers' Club last October, and through this initiative, farmers have been trained on food safety from December 2017 to January 2018. Three topics were covered under the training: 1. How to properly handle and use pesticides and insecticides in farms; 2. How to maintain the farmer's own health and safety; 3. How to maintain farm records and documentation. Our first post-training harvest was produced in April, and through that harvest, we launched the brand 'Shuddho'. After the launch, we went for extensive marketing drives, starting with a 'Meet the Farmer' campaign, where customers were encouraged to interact with the farmers responsible for the produce being sold in our markets. Customers showed keen interest and this was further witnessed when the sale and customers of 'Shuddho' products drastically increased. We started this project with six crops from 15 farmers; today there are 78 farmers who produce crops for this project and we serve around 1,500 families daily under this project.
However, there is only so much Shwapno can do on its own to ensure safe food production and consumption. All the stakeholders need to be actively involved and engaged to ensure a nationwide change.
Dr Kristian Moeller, CEO and Founder, GlobalG.A.P.
The idea of good agricultural practice has been in existence for long but it's been more of an agronomic approach of feeding the world. It hasn't had that link to consumer health and safety from the private and consumer side. GlobalG.A.P. is trying to fill this gap.
We focus on the safe use of pesticides where trials are conducted, and the level of insecticide applied is monitored to ensure that the residues are so low that they wouldn't have any impact on human health. We use hazard analysis and critical control point processes in a generic form so that farmers have standard procedures to follow.
We have introduced what we call 'local gaps' to focus on the core areas, the biggest risks. This process starts with the pre-harvest interval and uses the right measures to educate the farmers and communicate how this is a safer product.
We need to translate what consumers expect into good agriculture practice. Industry has changed in many countries in terms of concentration, where retailers have become very powerful and price has become a dominant area. We need to restructure and find systems that allow the private sector to collaborate in the supply chain and build an incentive for farmers.
There's limitation from the private sector to invest in training and education, and that's where the call is for the public sector and the government, who can support the research and development on how to best improve food safety.
Sajjadur Rahman, Business Editor, The Daily Star & Moderator of the session
Some estimates show that only one percent of the pesticides used on the agriculture produce kill the insects but the rest of it applied is left as residue which is then consumed by people. There are concerns that colour is used on watermelons while formalin is still used on imported fruits. We need to ask whether we are putting poison on our plates? If we want safe food, we need to address the integrated system of farmers, retailers and the supply chain.
Prof Dr Md. Iqbal Rouf Mamun, Member, Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA)
There is a misconception in our country that fruits and vegetables are being contaminated or preserved with formalin.
Formalin is a solution of formaldehyde, which is used to preserve dead bodies. Formaldehyde acts with protein, not with fiber. Fruits and vegetables only contain 2-5 percent protein. Formaldehyde will only work on protein-based living or dead species if you soak it completely in formaldehyde solution in a jar or container. If someone sprays formaldehyde on fruits or vegetables, the chemical will evaporate faster than water. A chemical compound like formaldehyde only reacts according to its property.
When apples grow on a tree, they produce a kind of edible wax, similar to the one you find on honeycombs. When apples are exported, an extra layering of this wax is applied on apples, a process that is approved by institutes like the FDA and other governing agencies. This can preserve apples for over two months. In fact, through the use of controlled atmosphere technology, you can keep an apple intact for a year by simply reducing the amount of oxygen in the environment.
Every fruit and vegetable contains natural formaldehyde within them, which we call PPM. A study, conducted by FAO in Bangladesh in 2016 on 28 food items, calculated the formaldehyde contained in these items. The artificial formaldehyde presence is far lower than the fruit or vegetable's natural formaldehyde. They also calculated how much formaldehyde daily food items contain. On average, Bangladeshis take in 7.02 mg formaldehyde of per kg food. According to European Food Safety Authority, you can safely take in around 100mg formaldehyde of per kg food.
We need scientific awareness and need to identify actual problems. For that, we need accredited laboratories which will provide authentic results. Media has the responsibility to publish verified news so that rumours or misconceptions are prevented.
AKM Nurul Afsar, National Leader, Institutionalization of Food Safety in Bangladesh for Safer Food, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Farmers often don't get information on the right dosage of insecticide to be used from agriculture extension workers, instead they are misled by insecticide manufacturers who prescribe higher dosage so that their profits are maximised.
Government has achieved food safety to an extent but food security cannot be ensured unless the food supply chain is safe. In 2013, the government formulated a new Food Safety Act, the provisions of which is based on scientific evidence, and it covers the complete food chain. G.A.P. also covers the entire food chain, from production, marketing to the customers, thereby ensuring proper business practices that should be followed by businesses across the country.
Media too has a huge role to play in educating the masses. Food safety is not the responsibility of one agency, department or individual; it is a multi-stakeholder responsibility, starting from the farmer, government, retailers, salesmen, and consumers.
Paul Bundick, Chief of Party, DAI, Agriculture Value Chain (AVC) Project, USAID
Food safety is a systemic problem of many dimensions in terms of standards, science, and public education, among others. AVC has helped crop protection supply companies, like NAFCO and Partex, to consider an approach centred on customer service. When the incentive structure through their retail network is only about sales, the incentive of crop protection firms is to sell more products without educating farmers about the adequate dosage. Some of the early work done with NAFCO and Partex has shown that if the farmers, retailers, customers and distributors are brought together in some kind of information sharing feedback loop, the system can actually ride itself in a very real way. Customers, thus, instead of being objects of sale, become part of the supply chain as they give feedback on what they need and what works for them. This kind of a mutual self-reinforcing education process actually reduces pesticide use. The focus thus should be on training the farmer for customer retention and getting feedback from them on improving the product, thereby enabling it to become a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.
Dewan Ashraful Hossain, Deputy Director, Dept. of Agricultural Marketing
We have tried to create a bridge between farmers and retailers, but we haven't been able to do that because of payment factors. Farmers prefer selling their produce directly to market and getting instant payment. Shop owners, on the other hand, are willing to pay after sales. We need to find a solution which will benefit both the farmers and retailers.
Currently, we are updating the 'Agricultural Produce Markets Regulation Act (1964)', which can be an effective tool for regulating a marketing process of agriculture produce. Safety related clauses will be included in this Act, which will also address the problem that food products can get contaminated during processing. We are hoping to get the new law passed by the end of this year.
Ashraf Bin Taj, Managing Director, IDC Bangladesh Ltd.
From field to retail outlets, there is a long supply chain. The quality of produce gradually falter along the supply chain. We need to ensure compliance in the whole supply system. The government has a large manpower to reach the farmers. We need to find ways to effectively use these human resources and build a partnership between the public and private sector to create mass awareness about food safety.
There should be certain clauses in the disbursement process of agricultural loans, through which it can be ensured that food safety parameters are taken care of.
Khandoker Anwar Kamal, Project Coordinator, DCCI
DCCI holds regular seminars and provides training to its members about good agricultural practices. We have also established a help desk in this regard. We are very interested in partnering with GlobalG.A.P. in their effort to ensure food safety.
Sardar Ali Mortuza, Director & CEO, AgriPlus Ltd.
AgriPlus is trying to maintain G.A.P. standards in our business. We have many contract farmers, and have developed software to provide all sorts of technical support to these farmers. We are also trying to establish an efficient soil testing method and a post-harvest management system. Our farmers get information on the types of nutrition available (or absent) in the field. We are also providing bio-pesticides, ferment traps and yellow strips to farmers.
We should establish a large number of labs across the country to ensure regular testing of our produces, and kit boxes should also be made available. Moreover, the media can play a proactive role to create mass awareness about good agricultural practices.
Crop protection products isn't bad; it actually helps to protect crops. On the other hand, it is misused when farmers aren't aware of how to use these products in the right and wise way. This is why education of good practice as a starting point at Shwapno's Farmers' Club is so important. At the same time, there needs to be local adaptation of good agricultural practices. We offer global standards but there has to have a nationally embedded interpretation of these as a point of reference in the national legislation, in daily culture and so on.
Shwapno has done an incredible job in a short span of time. Farmers want to do right but are unable to do so because of the pressures on them. But Shwapno has managed to aptly incentivise them so that they are motivated to opt for safe food production.
I think the government as well as media can support the manufacturers, retailers and producers who are working on safe food production so that a positive example is set. There is a need to support the government, the institutions and ministries that are doing the right thing, by setting a framework for these organisations. Also, through digitisation, we can make farming a more attractive career option for young people. If we champion new ideas, give them recognition, and make them an example in safe food production, a change can be ensured.