KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 19 (Bernama) -- To paraquat or not to paraquat, that isthe question facing many farmers in the country.
The country's Pesticides Board has successfully won endorsement from theauthorities to ban the use of paraquat from September 2005 because of itshigh toxicity.
But many farmers feel that they want to stick to paraquat in view of itsefficacy in controlling weeds.
In view of paraquat's quick-acting compound, padi farmers can work ontheir fields 24 hours after applying the herbicide instead of 10 days ifanother type of herbicide, glyphosate isoproplylamine, is used.
Besides padi farmers, those engaged in other agriculture activities suchas pepper, cocoa, oil palm and rubber also use paraquat widely at present.
Paraquat, a nitrogen-based herbicide, is globally employed for weedcontrol because it is inexpensive. Its quick-acting and non-selectivemixture destroys green plant tissues on contact, thus saving farmers andsmallholders precious time and money to eradicate their padi fields, farmsand plantations of unwanted weeds and grass.
A committee member of the Chenderong Balai Area Farmers Organisation,Abdul Rani, said padi farmers could increase their output by up to 10tonnes per hectare using the weedkiller.
Other types of weedkiller, he said, took a longer time, some up to 10days, to rid weeds on their padi plots compared to paraquat, which workedalmost immediately.
"It saves us a lot of time and enables us to increase our padi output asenvisioned by the government," Abdul Rani said recently.
Padi farmers said they could increase their harvest by up to 10 tonnes perhectare using paraquat.
And they want a meeting with officials from the Pesticides Board to airtheir grouses as to why the herbicide which they had been using for morethan 40 years would be banned. So far the board's officials have notentertained requests for such a meeting.
Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) vice-chairman Boon Weng Siew says ameeting with the board's officials would help clear the air aboutparaquat.
Padi farmers feel that with their myriad of pressing challenges such ascontrolling diseases affecting their crops, they do not need another setof problems resulting from the removal of a trusted herbicide.
Who will compensate them for their loss, they often ask.
Padi farmers have long said that paraquat did not pose groundwatercontamination and studies by five universities in the United Statesconcluded that "paraquat does not present a high risk of groundwatercontamination." One of the agencies which funded the study was the USDepartment of Agriculture.
A spokesman for 15,000 padi farmers in Seberang Prai Utara, Mohamad SaadSaat, said recently that paraquat saved costs in farm work as well asplanting time compared to glyphosate.
"We have been using paraquat for a long time and are skilled with theapplication rules," he said."Glyphosate has lasting effects deepunderground and as such, plants cannot live long. Besides, it is also moreexpensive."
The five American universities study also disclosed that the US governmentfound paraquat to be effective in destroying marijuana. Even the Mexicangovernment uses it to wipe out this illegal crop.
Saba anak Aling, a farmer and village headman from Sarikei, Sarawak, saidparaquat "works on the surface but glyphosate sinks deeper into theground, thus giving long-lasting effect."
Both Saad and Saba said paraquat is safe but had often been misused.
"As a weedkiller, paraquat has been very effective but it had been misusedby some to take their own lives. As such, it has been labelled asdangerous," said Saad.
To deter those with suicidal tendencies from consuming paraquat,manufacturers have added an agent that causes violent vomiting ifconsumed. It also has a sharp odour to serve as a warning.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), the National Association ofSmallholders (NASH) and the Malaysian Estate Owners Association (MEOA) hadsaid in a joint statement recently that banning paraquat would cost thecountry a cumulative loss of RM2.73 billion over 10 years. It would alsoseriously hurt the competitiveness of Malaysian palm oil internationally.
The three bodies said the ban would hurt more than 700,000 smallholderfarmers and 3,000 estates that use paraquat.
MPOA, NASH and MEOA also commissioned a study by Intercedent Asia on theimpact of the paraquat ban on the rubber and oil palm sectors.
Their study found that the ban would have serious economic repercussions,including a RM1.57 billion increase in cumulative weed control cost andRM1.16 billion in cumulative crop yield loss.
The ban would also cause a majority of 700,000 smallholders who useparaquat to suffer an annual income loss of up to 7.0 percent in themedium term, representing almost one month's income, and would alsoseriously hurt Malaysia's palm oil competitiveness from higher productioncost and lower crop yield.
The Intercedent Asia study also found that paraquat retained the rootstructure, thereby helping to prevent soil erosion.
But the most pertinent issue of the ban is that users of paraquat may beforced to turn to the illegal market where they could be exploited withsub-standard products, thus placing themselves and the environment undermore harm.
The MPOA has warned that Malaysian palm oil could face strong competitionfrom its biggest rival, Indonesia, which is among 120 countries that allowthe use of paraquat. Others include India, Vietnam, Japan, Australia andthe United States.
NASH president Datuk Mazlan Jamaluddin said,"We are representing more than700,000 smallholders who disagree with the ban. It would reduce the incomeof oil palm and rubber smallholders by 6.8 percent and 5.8 percentrespectively."
On Sept 8, 200 farmers in Sungai Gedung near Bagan Serai unfurled a 300metre-long long banner bearing 5,000 signatures of farmers across thecountry urging the nation's leaders to intervene on their behalf. This wasthe second gathering of farmers in two months after 15,000 padi farmers inSeberang Prai Utara District had gathered on July 14 to urge thegovernment to reconsider the ban.
The banner was to be handed to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr MahathirMohamad and his deputy, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to seek theirintervention to rescind the ban.
On Sept 10, Deputy Agriculture Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shariff Omarannounced that the ban on paraquat would remain despite appeals by padifarmers.
Although the herbicide is popular among farmers and smallholders, he saidit had to be banned because paraquat is very toxic.
He also urged farmers to use other types of weedkillers which are lesstoxic such as glyphosate.
But farmers have countered that they could only start working their fields10 days after glyphosate was applied.
What had irked the farmers most was the refusal of the Pesticides Board tolisten to them on the adverse impact of the ban on their livelihood. Theyare also upset that the board did not consider its economic implications.
The board had on Aug 27, 2002 issued a circular that applications toregister or to re-register paraquat would be rejected. All applicationsunder process will be stopped and previously registered products will bephased out in stages.
There are now 113 registrations for paraquat. The last of the list willcome up for re-registration in September 2005 but with the ban this meansthat in two years from now, paraquat will cease to be legally available inMalaysia.
Since its Aug 27 circular, the board has been relatively silent. Itsofficials had said the ban would stay with no further review by the boardas it was a Cabinet decision.
Meanwhile, Razak Lajis of the National Poison Centre at Universiti SainsMalaysia in Penang, likened the paraquat ban to banning smoking.
"Some sectors would like to ban smoking. But they fail to take intoconsideration the economic aspects of it."
However, he suggested: "If paraquat manufacturers can come out with a newcompound with less toxicity and just as effective, then we will see howthings go. But the directive will have to come from the Pesticides Board."