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  • India's lesson in science-based activism

India's food-safety regulations are likely to be overhauled as a result of an NGO investigation into pesticide residues in soft drinks. Such an outcome would have important lessons for effective science communication.

When the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a non-governmental organisation based in Delhi, published a report last August claiming to have found alarming levels of pesticide residues in soft drinks, the Indian government was immediately thrown on the defensive.

The Ministry of Health quickly tried to calm the public controversy by issuing a statement saying that although analyses carried out in government laboratories had confirmed the presence of pesticides, the levels were significantly lower than CSE had claimed (see Ministers demand more safety tests in Indian cola row). Shortly afterwards, however, it published hastily drafted regulations applying new safety levels for pesticide residues in soft drinks (regulations that were themselves soon attacked by fruit producers for applying to fruit juices as well).

The apparent disarray in government ranks prompted an inquiry by a joint committee of the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha. Its report, published two weeks ago, makes absorbing reading (see Indian committee confirms pesticides in drinks). In essence, the Parliamentary committee not only endorses CSE's findings about the presence of pesticide residues in the water used in a range of popular soft drinks, but compliments the organisation for its whistle-blowing on an issue of major public concern.

The committee explains the differences between the NGO's results and those obtained by government laboratories in terms of the analytical techniques used, and the fact that samples of the soft drinks in question were taken from batches manufactured at different times. And it castigates the government for failing to take a proper scientific look at issues of food security, accusing it of acting too hastily in bringing in the new regulations without proper consideration of their full implications.

Flaws in decision-making

The government's full reaction to the report has yet to be announced. Some fear that it could ignore the Parliamentary report completely, and allow 'business as usual' to continue. Others, however, are more optimistic that the report will lead to a significant overhaul of the way in which India polices its food safety. They hope, on the one hand, that the country adopts levels of exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals comparable to those in, say, Europe, and on the other that standard setting is placed on a reliable scientific footing, and no longer left in the hands of bureaucratic committees.

If the latter were to happen, the result would not only be a significant victory for CSE, but also a dramatic illustration of the potential impact of the practice of science-based activism. For at the heart of CSE's campaign was a desire both to reveal the potential dangers of the pesticide residues lurking in the drinks, and to expose flaws in the decision-making machinery of the government. And its tactic has been to base this campaign around its own scientific assessment of the issues at stake.

The main charge of CSE had been based on its finding that samples of 12 leading drinks produced and marketed in India by Pepsico and Coca Cola contained residues of four extremely toxic pesticides and insecticides: lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos. In each case, the levels far exceeded the maximum residue limit for pesticides in water used as 'food' set down by the European Economic Commission.

The two companies quickly put out a statement denying that their drinks were dangerous, but also pointing out — with some justification — that a relatively high level of pesticide use across the country meant that, inevitably, the whole food chain contained pesticide residues (see Indian row over ‘pesticides in soft drinks’ claim). "The real issue is the need for a proactive policy on phasing out pesticides," said a spokesman for a laboratory that had been carrying out routine tests on behalf of the companies.

Genuine concerns

The results from subsequent tests in government laboratories have diluted the full impact of CSE's initial claims; there continues, for example, to be a dispute over the significance of measurements of malathion. Nevertheless the Parliamentary committee makes it clear that, overall, the findings of these laboratories confirms that the organisation has identified a significant cause of public concern — and is particularly critical of the fact that it took a non-governmental organisation to spot the problem, rather than being the result of any systematic approach based on scientific studies.

CSE itself argues that its main target has been not so much the two companies who produced the soft drinks — even though this has figured more prominently in media coverage — as the government, whose regulations were described by CSE director Sunita Narain as "a vague maze of meaningless definitions". This too is largely confirmed by the Parliamentary report.

In particular, the Parliamentary committee highlights its concern that hastily prepared regulations were introduced by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare without even consulting its Central Committee on Food Standards (CCFS). "In future, the modifications in the standards should not be done in haste, but should only be taken after full scientific studies based on proper risk assessment," the committee said. It was also important that the process of modifying standards should involve wide consultations with the CCFS sub-committees, which have representation from other ministries, scientists, trade and industry, farmers' groups, and consumer organisations.

The lessons for science communication

It is too soon to tell what the full impact of the CSE investigation is likely to be; the imminent general election in India, for example, could provide the government with an effective smokescreen for continuing with 'business as usual'. However it would be irresponsible of the government to fail to respond to the concerns that the investigation has highlighted, particularly as their legitimacy has now been endorsed by the Parliamentary inquiry.

Furthermore it would be difficult, at least in principle, to find a more graphic example of the way in which effective communication about science can bring about significant social change. For CSE officials based their strategy on ensuring, firstly, that their own concerns were solidly based on scientific fact, and secondly that these concerns were widely disseminated and brought to the attention of the public by the Indian media. Neither course of action would, on its own, have been sufficient to achieve what the combination was able to do.

This is, perhaps, a somewhat extreme example of the potential power of science communication. Most of such communication, whether carried out by journalists or public relations officers (or even scientists themselves) involves the more mundane description and analysis of scientific achievements. And few of these achievements will have the kind of immediate impact of the research carried out at CSE; indeed most of them will hardly ruffle any political feathers at all.

Nevertheless the basic elements of CSE's achievement remain valid for both effective campaigning and reporting. At the heart of these is a respect for scientific data, and a commitment to ensuring that high scientific standards lie at the heart of both government regulations, and campaigns that target any apparent inadequacies in such regulations. The more that this can be assured, the more robust the outcome of a campaign (or even the impact of an individual article seeking to change public and political awareness on a sensitive topic) is likely to be.

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