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Artificial fruit ripening – threat to health and economy

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By: Showkat Ahmad Dar

Fruits are a good source of vitamins and minerals, and play an essential role in preventing vitamin C and vitamin A deficiencies. People who eat fruits as part of an overall healthy diet generally have a reduced risk of chronic diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends five servings of fruits and vegetables every day for a healthy living. . Nutritionists advise to include fruits and vegetables in our daily diet to improve our immune system. However, we do not know that these fruits, vegetables, and food products available in the market today, which we are consuming daily to boost our immune system, are really safe.

The health benefits of fruits depend on how they are ripened. The best course will be to allow them to ripen on the plant/tree itself. After proper maturity, fruits ripen in nature by using many physical and biochemical events. This process is irreversible and leads towards what is called senescence. The fruits become soft, change in color, and develop characteristic aroma and flavor, with an increase in sugar level and reduction in acid content. Many factors influence the process of ripening, including temperature and relative humidity.

Unfortunately, farmers have been using artificial ripening agents on fruits and vegetables to induce artificial ripening in them. They don’t wait for them to ripen naturally. Most of the times, fruits and vegetables need to be transported over long distances, farmers harvest them much before they get ripe. The traders then ripen them artificially at the destination using specific chemicals.

In Kashmir, farmers have also resorted to induce artificial ripening in fruits so that they could send them in markets much earlier, to get good returns for their fruits. They spray chemicals either on fruit trees or directly on fruits after plucking them down to induce artificial ripening in them. The effect of artificial ripening has become questionable because of various health-related issues.

Ethephon, 2-chloroethylphosphonic acid, is one of the most commonly used plant growth regulators. It penetrates the fruit and decomposes ethylene. Another compound that is used regularly is calcium carbide, which produces acetylene, which is an analogue of ethylene. It is, however, fraught with several problems. It is explosive and studies have shown that it breaks down the organic composition of vitamins and other micronutrients. Besides, it changes only the skin colour: the fruit remains raw inside. Also, industrial-grade calcium carbide is often found contaminated with trace amounts of arsenic and phosphorus, which are toxic chemicals. The symptoms of arsenic and phosphorous poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea with/without blood, weakness, burning sensation in the chest and abdomen, thirst, the problem in swallowing, burning of eyes, permanent eye damage, ulcers on the skin, mouth, nose and throat. Other symptoms include throat sores, cough, wheezing and shortness of breath.

The studies have shown that the consumption of artificially ripened Apples can upset stomach. It damages the mucosal tissue in the stomach and disrupts the intestinal function. If a person is exposed to the chemicals for a long time, they can cause peptic ulcers. According to studies, calcium carbide can also affect the neurological system by inducing prolonged hypoxia. It causes symptoms like headache, dizziness, high sleepiness, memory loss, cerebral oedema, numbness in the legs and hands, general weakness, cold and damp skin, low blood pressure and seizure. Pregnant women particularly need to be very careful and should not consume such fruits and vegetables.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has banned calcium carbide under the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act, 1954. Anyone using it can be imprisoned for three years along with a fine of Rs 1,000. However, no effective action plan has been devised to implement it. Even no unified policy on fruit cultivation, preservation, and distribution exists within SAARC countries.

The fruit ripening chemical was also banned by the state government in Kashmir in 2017, following reports of its ill-effects on both the fruit as well as the human beings. In May 2017, secretary horticulture department had issued a ban order in view of wide range of harmful effects of Ethephon on fruit plants/human health. The horticulture department had requested the SKUAST-K to examine the issue and advice on its effects. “A detailed report received from SKUAST-K had revealed that by use of such ripening agent, the quality of the crop gets deteriorated; as such the fruits cannot be stored for longer periods. The mostly used compound Ethephon, if used continuously year after year, may render the tree unproductive and also reduce the economic life of the plant. Ethylene treated fruits consumed immediately after the application results in dehydration due to its diarrheal properties. Therefore, Ethephon treated fruits are not recommended for consumption immediately after its application,” the order issued had said. Director, law enforcement, agriculture production department had also reported that the pesticide (Ethephon) is mostly being used for ripening of apple. It is not even recommended for use on apple by the Registering Authority. The said pesticide adversely affects the health of plant/quality of fruit/shelf life and also has harmful effects on the human health. It was recommended that the sale of the said pesticide (Ethephon 39% SL and 10% paste) may be restricted in apple growing areas. The authorities had said that as per the major uses of pesticides, registered under the Insecticides Act, 1968, its use has been restricted to certain fruits and is not recommended for apple. The authorities had accorded sanction to the imposition of restrictions on the sale of Ethephon 39% SL and 10% paste and ban on its use on apple crop in the J&K State.

In spite of having strict laws and acts, the inclination towards the use of artificial ripening agents is dominant among farmers and the vendors in Kashmir. People of Kashmir are continuously using the Ethephon and other chemicals that too in higher concentrations than recommended one and the illegal trade is going on despite the government’s ban on its sale. The use of artificial ripening agents on apples poses a big threat to this industry. The consumers don’t consider apples safe for their health and are reluctant in consuming such fruits. If the use of such chemicals continues in Kashmir and the government does not take strict measures to ban the sale and spray of such chemicals, the time is not far when our fruit industry will collapse and people will witness a huge economic setback.

In Kashmir, The fruit Industry had already witnessed  huge losses in  2008, 2010, 2016 due to the frequent  uprisings and shutdowns. Year 2019 was no exception, it was a peak season of apple harvesting when whole Jammu and Kashmir witnessed complete lockdown post abrogation of Article 370 and 35A and  the growers could not sell their fruits in markets. Besides the early snowfall in November 2019 also proved to be a big setback to fruit industry. This year the situation seems to be grimmer because of the frequent Covid-19 related lockdowns. There are apprehensions among the growers and the trading agents regarding the trade of apple from Kashmir to different states of India and abroad. This time the use of artificial ripening agents may prove more disastrous for the growers as the markets would not accommodate the fruits in bulks and secondly such fruits could not be stored any longer.

Keeping all such challenges in view, the Jammu and Kashmir Horticulture Department has recently come up with a strong advisory for the orchardists not to use any artificial ripening agents on their apples which has been appreciated by general public. But this alone can’t resolve the issue unless mass awareness is raised among farmers, sellers, and consumers regarding the health hazards associated with such chemicals. Media, lawmakers, researchers, and technology experts can also play a vital role in this respect. Moreover the religious preachers and scholars must come forward and tell people about the ruling of different religions regarding the use of such poisonous chemicals on fruits and vegetables. They should educate the masses that we as the human beings should not put the lives of others in danger merely for our little gains and must never let the children of others to consume what we don’t like for ours to. As the majority of people in Kashmir belong to Muslim community and as Muslims we should not turn away from the basic teachings of Islam and must stand with the truth and righteousness to safeguard the wellbeing of human civilization. We should prove our faith by not resorting to any kind of unfair means to make money. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said – “Khairun nas man yanfa`un nas” (The Best Amongst Mankind is One Who Benefits Humanity).

For the sake of our future generations we must adopt humanistic approach and should strive for every possible means to protect our fruit industry for our future generations. It is a high time to respond to the advisories of the state Horticulture Department and other health experts so that we could  sustain our heritage for the longer times.  Our rational and natural approach towards our fruit industry would be the best way of paying gratitude to God and the best thing that we could pass on to our progeny.

– The writer is a teacher at Govt. Secondary Institute Brath Kalan Sopore and can be reached at [email protected]

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