Every night at 10.30 pm, a train leaves from small station in India’s northern state of Punjab to a very special destination. Passengers wear a sad and dismal face and comprise mostly of young children and adult men. Train 339 has been famously dubbed as India’s “Cancer Train”. It carries passengers from the state of Punjab to a government run hospital to the neighboring state of Rajasthan, a gruelling journey of 8 hours. Our planet’s biodiversity is under attack from many different fronts. Chemical centric agriculture is not only affecting the ecology but is turning out to be a death warrant for many communities around the world. This is clearly evident in Punjab where the so called “Green Revolution” of 1960s has resulted in the devastation of the ecosystem and the loss of its biodiversity. In Punjab, the new farming techniques with fertilizers and pesticides has resulted in an environmental degradation which is bringing a fast death to one of the worlds oldest civilization.
Punjabi civilization is one of the worlds oldest. Some western archaeologists working on the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjodaro (present day Pakistan) estimate it to be as old as 10,000 years. Punjab (Punj = Five, Ab= water) translates to the land of five rivers. This is the birthplace of the worlds oldest religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The concept of Karma, yoga, vedas, and the elusive Sanskrit language took shape on the banks of these five rivers in Northern India. The Golden age of India came to a gradual halt with the arrival of invaders and when the British came in early 1800’s, Punjab’s old way of living disappeared in the midst. Contrary to the current popular perception of India’s double digit GDP growth, the front-line paints a very dark and unsettling picture. According to the world health organization, India will be the most populated country on Earth by 2050. Currently its education is in disarray and corruption is rampant not only in the government sector but also amongst the majority of the local populace. It is puzzling that a land capable of producing enlightened and brilliant minds is now the reason of its own demise. The most damaging blow to India and particularly to Punjab is shaping up in the form of an ecological disaster on a grand scale. Green revolution was termed in the 1960s and was a collaborative effort from multiple countries to increase agricultural production around the world. It included the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to the farmers. A former United States Agency for International Development director William Gaud said, “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution, It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran, I call it the Green Revolution.”
To conserve and sustain life on earth, ecologists and evolutionary biologists advocate for the protection of nature. Many ecologists feel a responsibility in educating public and government about environmental issues. One such esteemed ecologist was Rachel Carlson who challenged William Gaud’s statement. Dr. Carlson studied the environmental problems caused by pesticides, particularly DDT. Her research concluded that uncontrolled and unexamined pesticide use was harming not only animals, but humans as well. Dr. Carlson documented her research and published Silent Spring (1962). Aptly named, the book paints a sad scene in spring in which no birds could be heard because they had all died by over use of pesticides. Her research showed that DDT and other pesticides cause cancer and their use in agriculture was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. (Campbell and Reece 1239)
DDT is one of the most well-known pesticides. It is highly hydrophobic, colorless, and with a weak chemical odor. Due to its hydrophobic property, it readily gets absorbed in soil. In soil, it has a half life of between 22 days to as long as 30 years. Some of the ways that it can degrade is through photolysis, which is the breakdown of chemical compound by photons. It is also degraded by microorganisms in soil that conduct aerobic respiration, in which prokaroytes, in the presence of oxygen, break down the chemical compound by hydrolysis. However, the rate at which DDT biodegrades is slow. When introduced in the aquatic environment by means of runoffs, it is quickly absorbed by the organisms and the rate at which this pesticide accumulates is greater than the rate at which it is lost. Therefore, this bioaccumulation is greater in apex predators like predatory birds. DDT is lipophillic and it is stored mainly in body fat. It is highly resistant to metabolism with a half-life in human ranging from 6 to 10 years.
Silent Spring (1962) advocated the complete ban of pesticides and the research clearly stated the harmful effects of chemicals on the entire ecosystem. In response to Silent Spring, then president John F Kennedy directed his science committee to investigate Dr. Carlson’s claims. The investigation supported the claims and led to an immediate stringent control on the use of chemicals. DDT use in the United States was banned in 1972 due to the determination of Rachael Carson who summed up her message, “The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man”.
Traversing 7500 miles to the other face of the globe we arrive in Punjab where to this day harmful pesticides including DDT are being used liberally since 1960s. Since then, India’s few fertile lands increased their production of wheat and rice by four fold. This green revolution of India came in the form of new irrigation methods, hybrid seeds, and pesticides and was hailed as a great success. Punjab became the bread basket of India feeding billions of its citizens. But 50 years later, Punjab’s water table is nearly tapped out, its soil severly degraded, and farmer livelihood at stake under mounting debt burdens. India’s so called bread basket is on the verge of collapse but rising from this chaos like an angle of redemption is a public health nightmare – cancer.
Dan Zwerdling of npr.org, filed reports on the public-heatlh implications of Punjab’s chemical centric agriculture. He says, “People say they never used to see so many cancer patients in this farm region. Cancer was considered an urban disease, suffered by people who lived in cities choked with industry and pollution.” As Zwerdling travels through the villages of Punjab he reports that every village with a population of 3000 to 5000 has atleast 100 cases of cancer. A South African toxiocologist Dr. Carin Smit reported that some regions that grow cotton in Punjab have their water sources polluted and this resulted in widespread cases of Cancer. Dr Smit found shocking levels of Uranium content in these water sources. He conducted an experiment where the hair samples of young children were sent to Germany’s Microtrace Mineral Lab. On June 13, 2010, the lab reported high levels of uranium in these samples. Dr Carin Smit stated, “The hair results are surprising. We expected an arsenic exposure. Instead, over 80% of adult and children, many of which are suffering from cerebral palsy and mental retardation, showed pathological levels for uranium.”
Water footprint denotes the volume of water (cubic meters per year) required to sustain a population. About 84% of the water footprint of cotton consumption is in India and Uzbekistan (Chapagain and Hoekstra 9). Cotton not only demands large amount of water, it requires enormous amount of fertilizers and pesticides. The total quantity of pesticides used in the production of cotton leaches out of the plant root zone and gets in the ground water bodies. The nitrate ions in the blood can inactivate hemoglobin, reducing the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. According to Dr. Hoekstra, “Nitrates in the drinking water can be harmful as the nitrite ions are formed in the gastrointestinal tract by the chemical reduction of the nitrate ions.” (Chapagain and Hoekstra 19). He further adds, “Only 2.4 percent of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton yet cotton accounts for 24 percent of the world’s insecticide market and 11 percent of the sale of global pesticides.” (Chapagain and Hoekstra 19). The pesticides and nutrients from the cotton plant also make its way into the surface water which stimulates the growth of algae and creates vast dead zones in the bodies of water. Figure 1.1 shows the fertilizer application during the production of cotton and the nitrogen injected into the water bodies.
In Punjab, the rise of cancer cases has taken the authorities by surprise and the lack of proper diagnosis center weighs heavily on the villagers. Zwerdling of npr.org reports that every night train 339 pulls into a small station in the western punjab and carries 60 cancer patients from Punjab to a government run Acharya Tulsi Cancer Hospital and research centre in the neighboring state of Rajasthan. Zwerdling cannot help but notice the young ages of the passengers and interestingly most of the passengers are from the cotton belt and other regions where wheat is heavily grown.
So, is there a way out for Punjab or any other region of the world experiencing an ecological genocide due to pesticides? The answer may lie literally in the “root” of the problem. Annual plants are plants which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds and die every year. All the grains (rice, wheat, corn, etc.) that feed billions of people around the world come from annuals. Perennials are plants that have life expectancy of many years. According to USDA geneticists Edward Buckler who studies corn at Cornell University, “ The whole world is mostly perennials. So why did we domesticate annuals? Not because Annuals were better but because Neolithic farmers rapidly made them better by replanting the ones from thriving plants, year after year. Perennials did not benefit from that kind of selective breeding. Their natural advantage became a handicap. They became the road not taken.” The main advantage of Perennials, which is implicitly mentioned in the above quote, is its deep dense root systems which makes them resilient and its deep roots fuel the rebirth of plants each spring.
Annuals mostly tap into the top 1 foot of the soil. This area of the soil gets depleted very fast forcing farmers to inject more fertilizers. Most of this fertilizer washes away into surface and ground water. Since annuals leave the ground bare much of the year, it gives rise to weeds and in-turn promotes more use of pesticides by the farmers. Annuals also are the main reasons for soil erosion. According to Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, “Worldwide, one estimate put the rate of soil erosion from plowed fields at ten to a hundred times the rate of soil production. Unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any other crop.” Prennial grains would help in all of the above mentioned problems. They reduce soil erosion by keeping the ground covered annually. Ground cover also prevents weed from invading the fields and dramatically reduces the use of pesticides. Deep roots stabilize the soil and make the grains resilient. According to Buckler, “ Prennials capture water and nutrients 10 to 12 ft down in the soil, 11 months of the year. The deep roots and ground cover would also hold onto the fertilizer – reducing the cost to the farmer as well as to the environment.”
Scientists like Edward Buckler are going back to that road not taken and have successfully produced prennial wheat-wheatgrass hybrid which now can be convereted into flour. Although the yield at their research centers might be low to compete with the annual wheat yield in Punjab but given the life or death situation in the developing world, it is one of the few available choices. Amber waves of pernnial grain maybe decades away, but Buckler says, “I think we should take a shot at revolutionizing agriculture.” Regions like Punjab need people like Edward Buckler and Rachael Carlson to avoid its untimely death. Until then, an ever increasing line of passengers can be seen travelling right back to that station for that 8 hour ride back home, on the cancer train.
Author: Ranbir Singh Gill (UC Berkeley), Global Sikh News