Some thoughts on bananas, mangoes and local milk

The Organic obsession of the government seems to be further heightening with the Chief Minister recently announcing a ban on bananas and mangoes (to join the proposed ban on vegetables from outside from April next year onwards) and promotion of organic milk and cattle feed.

It is, however, not clear why the state government proposes to ban bananas and mangoes out of the numerous fruits sold in the state.

Mangoes are hailed as the king of fruits and it is said to have over 20 different vitamins and minerals, making it a superfood. Mangoes also have much religious and cultural significance like the Jain goddess Ambika who is traditionally represented as sitting under a mango tree.

In Hinduism, the perfectly ripe mango is often held by Lord Ganesha as a symbol of attainment, regarding the devotees' potential perfection. Mango blossoms are also used in the worship of the goddess Saraswati. Dried mango skin and its seeds are also used in Ayurvedic medicines. Mango leaves are used to decorate archways and doors in Indian houses and during weddings and celebrations such as Ganesh Chaturthi.

In Andhra Pradesh, mango leaves are considered auspicious and are used to decorate front doors during festivals. Mango motifs and paisleys are widely used in different Indian embroidery styles, and are found in Kashmiri shawls, Kanchipuram silk sarees, etc. Paisleys are also common to Iranian art because of its pre-Islamic Zoroastrian past.

Bananas, meanwhile, are one of the most eaten fruits and are rich in potassium and fiber. They may help prevent asthma, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and digestive problems.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group for human health and the environment, publishes the list of twelve foods containing high amount of pesticides and twelve most clean foods which is used as health indicator by most developed countries. In this list, both bananas and mangoes are listed in the clean list while apples, pears, peaches and potatoes are listed as containing most pesticides.

Sikkim produces 3.5 thousand tonnes of bananas as per the Horticulture Department, but mango production is negligible.

If the government is seriously promoting organic fruits it should ban the use of calcium carbide for ripening fruits and special squads should be deployed to conduct periodical checks at vegetable and fruits retail outlets. Setting up of laboratories to test fruits and vegetables for pesticide residues would improve detection and stop fruits and vegetables containing pesticides from entering the State.

Promotion of organic feed and milk in Sikkim must be examined in light of the definition which says that organic milk refers to a number of milk products from livestock raised according to organic farming methods. In most jurisdictions, use of the term "organic" or equivalents like "bio" or "eco", on any product is regulated by food authorities. In general, these regulations stipulate that livestock must be: allowed to graze, be fed an organically certified fodder or compound feed, not be treated with most drugs (including growth hormones), and in general must be treated humanely.

In Sikkim most farmers feed their cattle on feed made from mixture of mustard oilcakes and maize and other available cereals. Very few can afford to buy factory made cattle feed, thus making most milk produced in the state organic. However, the production of milk in the state is not sufficient for the growing population. Sikkim Milk Union supplied 11,462 thousand kgs of milk in 2015-16 but it had to purchase milk from West Bengal to augment its supply. The milk from West Bengal is not certified as organic.

The shortage of milk lies in several hindrances to cattle growth in the state. The land use pattern shows that land for grazing has gone down drastically and ban on grazing has affected cattle rearing significantly.

The cattle population has also not showed appreciable growth in the past decade as the accompanying table will attest.

Though cattle population has grown, female cattle population has gone down from 0.10 million in 2003 to 0.09 million in 2012. Further, out of the total cattle population, only 37,340 are milk giving cattle.

Data also shows that the exotic variety has gone up which is a good sign but the replacement speed is still very slow. Growth of exotic variety is slow due to their high price and also the high cost to maintain these breeds.

Shortage of manpower like gotalas and lack of grazing grounds have seriously affected growth of milk production in the state. A holistic plan needs to be drawn taking into consideration the various sectors connected with animal husbandry to improve the cattle population in the state. The ad-hoc approach of distributing cows randomly will not improve the milk production.

[The writer is ex-Secretary of Department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring & Evaluation (DESM&E)]