An article on page 16 of Kaieteur News’, Monday August 6th edition, headlined `Farmers use of artificial fruit ripening agents sparks concern locally’ caught my attention. Also, a letter to the editor in your July 19 edition on the same subject from Maureen Marks-Mendonca is relevant to the debate of this subject. I am encouraged that this matter is being publicised which gives consumers and others the opportunity to be informed of the risks posed by this practice.
Indeed, some of our farmers and vendors have joined the world of artificial ripening of fruits and vegetables with the use of chemical agents.
At least one such agent, Ethephon, is on sale at the Country Agri Centre in Vreed-en-Hoop, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice is not widely known among consumers. The two publications cited above mentioned calcium carbide which research shows is a cheaper but more dangerous agent. Though my research did not reveal information that calcium carbide is being used locally, there is evidence in some countries linking its use as a ripening agent to an increased number of cancer cases (www.vanguardngr.com/2018/07/fruits-ripened-with-calcium-carbide-dangerous-to-health-nafdac/).
Listening to the responses of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Shamdeo Persaud, a female representative from the Pesticide and Toxic Chemicals Control Board (PTCCB) and another official to questions from persons who called into a televised programme about two years ago, one did not get the impression that there is an awareness among the authorities of this rapidly expanding practice. Yet, two years on, based on the responses of officials in the aforementioned article, the authorities are no closer to understanding what is happening and taking action to protect the public.
The practice of artificial ripening is carried out in many countries, using different protocols that often involves the use of selected agents and selected types of fruits. For instance, in the United States, the National Organic Standard Board (NOSB) recommends the use of ethylene for post-harvest ripening of tropical fruits and de-greening of citruses. Also, the United Kingdom’s Soil Association permits the use of ethylene to ripen banana and kiwi (Soil Association Organic Standards, rev 16.4, June 2011).
However, it should be noted that in Bangladesh, the Pure Food Ordinance (Amendment) Act 2005 prohibits the use of calcium carbide, formalin, and pesticides such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which were found to be associated with artificial fruit ripening and its negative health consequences. A lot of information is available on the internet to anyone who might be interested in the subject.
A search of the website of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations did not reveal any specific regulations to manage the practice of artificial fruit ripening using chemical agents. Rather, the organisation appears to rely on its general standards for food safety and safe farming practices. However, the information available from other sources gives an indication of the position of the FAO in relation to the subject. One example is the FAO’s support for Global Organic Market Access (GOMA) in the development of Asia Regional Organic Standard (AROS).
One cannot be sure of the factors that drive the practice in Guyana, whether greed or economics. What is known, however, is that the fruits and vegetables business is one that requires very careful management to avoid losses from spoilage, due to the maturity of crops at the same time. In addition, there are usually transportation and distribution issues when naturally ripened fruits are moved from farm to market, and not to discount the problem of Praedial Larceny that forces farmers to harvest their crops before full maturity and hence having to induce ripening artificially.
Also, one needs to consider the ability of our farmers to meet the demand for seasonal fruits and vegetable during out-of-season periods.
Finally, there may well be other socio-economic factors that drive the practice, but in the absence of any official information, this remains an area subject to speculation.
Meanwhile, due to potential health hazards, the Guyanese public needs to be assured that the necessary legal and enforcement framework exist to ensure controlled use of Ethephon, as well as other agents that might be in use. Monitoring measures similar to what obtains in respect of the use of pesticides during cultivation of crops would be a good start, complimented by mass awareness campaigns among farmers, sellers and consumers regarding the practice and its possible health hazards. Media, lawmakers, researchers, and technology experts can play a vital roles in this respect.