Four months ago, TEDx had a talk which set tongues wagging. Something funky was going down up in Cameron Highlands – food and water is systematically being POISONED by the farmers themselves!! The TEDx speakers Dr. Lemuel Ng and Will Chua spoke about how vegetables and produce there came with its own ‘salad dressing’…by that we mean BANNED pesticides, not vinaigrette or Thousand Island!

Lemuel and Will had a contact, a Datuk Kong, who was a rich vegetable farmer up there, who does not eat a single leaf grown in the highlands. He eats vegetables from elsewhere. Why? Because the pesticides being used these days are insane:

“Nowadays they use this black liquid. Unnamed, no brand, nothing, from Thailand. They don’t even know what it is. They take one cap of this liquid and mix it with 200 gallons of water and they put it on their soil. Within one or two days, everything dies. His exact words… ‘everything dies’.” – Will Chua speaking at the TEDx event

Before going on, we highly recommend you watch the video:

 

At first we were doubtful of their claims…

*Assuming you’ve watched the whole video…

Wow, it sounds really alarming the way they talk about these pesticides and ZOMG what is in that bottle of black stuff from Thailand? Only one cap needed to mix with 200 gallons of water and EVERYTHING dies? What sorcery is that?!?

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Bottle of black stuff from Thailand used on veggies as pesticides! Screenshot from TEDx Talks video

These two guys were going on and on about how their friends and family had seriously bad health problems, like couples not being able to conceive, children having terrible skin allergies and popping strong antibiotics daily, people in their 30s getting cancer, and 20-year-olds having to do dialysis because of busted kidneys.

Lemuel, Will and their friends and family who were getting sick are from Johor. To understand why they are worried about an issue happening in a completely different state so many km away from them, is because Singapore buys a bulk of their veggies from Cameron Highlands. And these veggies pass through Johor to get there, so it also gets sold in Johor.

Thennn, in comes the part about eating organic vegetables and these guys own a family-run vegetable farm business called FOLO Farms in Johor. After switching to organic veggies some of those seriously bad health problems started to ease up – couples could finally conceive and children’s skin cleared up. To be fair, Lemuel did add that he doesn’t have enough cold hard facts to claim that eating organic vegetables was definitely a cure-all. But he did say this:

“You compare this to pesticide-sprayed, plastic covered vegetables, those vegetables are basically what we call a ghost of what real vegetables are. They are basically what we call junk food veggies. If you want to have phytonutrient-dense, flavourful vegetables that are actually good for you, that could actually heal you, then we have to grow our own. We have to grow it organically.” – Dr. Lemuel Ng

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FOLO Farms organic veggies

So we were like ermm, can believe them onot? How do we know that they’re not just trying to promote their business?

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Because there are REAL reports of dangerous pesticides in Cameron Highlands

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Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (Reach) President R. Ramakrishnan showing types of illegal pesticides used in Cameron Highlands. Image from The Star

A simple Google search will show that pesticide use in the highlands is NOT A MYTH and not something the speakers were just using to promote their organically farmed vegetables. There are news reports and even academic papers written about it from as far back as 2004, possibly older.

Based on these reports, the types of pesticides found are Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), Lindane (gamma hexachlorocyclohexane or HCH), endosulfan II, endrine ketone, aldrin and DDE (a derivative of DDT). Gosh, even the names themselves sound positively evil! Like the kind of poison that wicked queen in Snow White would have used to dip the apple in.

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Pesticides to keep your apples worm-free

The whole subject of pesticides is just too wide and too deep for us to get into, if we were to really break it down, but in brief, these substances are highly TOXIC and ILLEGAL in Malaysia according to the Pesticides Act, and internationally. It is an offence to posses or to use a pesticide that is not registered in the Pesticides Act and people who are found guilty can be fined RM10,000 or a jailed for one year.

But if that’s the case, why do farmers want to use banned substances rather than legal ones? Well, it is believed that bugs and pests in Cameron Highlands are so strong that farmers feel freaky black liquid from Thailand and such are more effective than the legal stuff.

As for international laws, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is one body that has published a recommendations guideline for using pesticides. Additionally, a UN treaty called the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was signed by 152 countries, including Malaysia. However, we have not ratified it. (Signing it just means we agree with it and have the intention to follow it, though it is not binding, whereas ratifying it is officially binding and we would have to start forming national laws for it.)

The Stockholm Convention has a list of substances categorised as to ‘eliminate’ or ‘restrict’, and some of the pesticides found in the highlands are on it. For instance, there’s aldrin, which was used globally as a pesticide until the 1970s when it was banned in most countries, though Malaysia was kinda late joining the ban-wagon only in 1994. Aldrin was detected in tap water in Cameron Highlands at an average of 0.071 microgrammes per litre, far above the WHO’s recommended limit of 0.03 microgrammes per litre!

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Man, the hills are so not alive with the sound of music. :-(

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CHUPPPP what do you mean they found pesticides in TAP WATER??? Aren’t pesticides only meant to be used on vegetables and produce? Here’s the thing… when pesticides are used in farms, it affects the surrounding area’s ecology on the whole. After spraying them on, it goes into the soil and eventually gets washed into rivers and streams, finally contaminating our tap water. They can also be blown by the wind to other areas. Some pesticides can remain in the environment for many years and pass from one organism to another.

So yes, traces of toxic pesticides we mentioned earlier on were discovered by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) researchers, after they took samples from six sites, including Brinchang tap water, water catchment areas, and along Sungai Bertam and Sungai Telom (main rivers in Cameron Highlands).

“This is very unnerving. We found contamination right at the source. I cannot understand how this was allowed to go on. Although the trace was miniscule and within the permitted level, I am concerned about the accumulated effect or aggregation of years of consumption on the internal body system. The effect could take place a couple of generations later causing birth defects and infertility.” – Prof. Dr. Md Pauzi Abdullah from the School of Chemical Sciences and Food Technology, UKM, Malay Mail

 

Yes! Illegal pesticides can cause infertility and tons of other problems to your body

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Pesticide poisoning in India is rampant. Image from newsable.asianetnews.tv

You wouldn’t spray Ridsect into a cup of water and drink it right? But as creeped out as we are at the thought of drinking Ridsect, it only has a Class IV toxicity category… now imagine consuming endosulfan which has been branded Class I or II (depending on the governing body). [Class I is very toxic, Class IV is safe. See table below]

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Ridsect only Class IV. Toxicity table from animhosnan.blogspot.my

Based on studies, exposure to certain pesticides can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, blood disorders, nerve disorders, endocrine disruption, and reproduction effects. Oh man! Basically that’s a full body disease package. :-(

On Google you will find plenty of pesticide poisoning case studies, but let’s focus on India… The country is one of the largest users of pesticide in Asia and also one of the largest manufacturers. Endosulfan has been used here for the past 20 years. So much so that toxins have entered their food chain – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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A study done in Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh, southern India records over 1,000 pesticide poisoning cases each year and hundreds of deaths. Data collected from a district government hospital there from 1997 to 2002 revealed that 8,040 patients were admitted there due to pesticide poisoning with an overall case fatality ratio of 22.6%. The effects they are suffering is varied (some reports of birth defects, autism, and delays in sexual maturity in boys) and it has especially hit infants and children hard:

“They are 4.5 years old. When they were born they were fine. After 2 days they fell sick. They used to get regular fits and their body’s changed to a blue colour.” – Rajbir Singh, father of twin sons in Punjab, India

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Effects believed to be caused by endosulfan poisoning. Images from keralabhumi.blogspot.my and newamericamedia.org

Even so, Indians have begun protesting against the use of endosulfan. So what about Malaysia?

If the poisoning of Cameron Highlands water has been highlighted by the media and researchers have found traces of pesticides in water samples, why are the authorities not cracking down on these farmers? From the timeline, it appears that the problem has been established some years back, but is still going on up to the time Lemuel and Will spoke at TEDx (which was four months ago). How liddat? 😐

 

Unfortunately the authorities have a lot of work ahead of them

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Farmers surveying the damage allegedly caused during the Ops Gading crackdown by the authorities. Image from Yeo Kai Wen in The Star

One of the strongest critics of this issue, a community based organisation formed by a group of residents concerned by the declining environment in Cameron Highlands, named Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands (REACH), had actively taken the initiative to prove that pesticides were indeed in their water supply. And now that the UKM researchers had indeed found traces in water samples, REACH said the authorities would surely be compelled to take action, including telling the public about it.

“Enforcement of bans on illegal pesticide is also lacking in effectiveness.” – Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, REACH President, The Rakyat Post

Aside from catching farmers who use illegal pesticides, REACH also urged the authorities to control unrestricted farming because it has also become another part of the problem there. Like our rainforests that are being cleared in Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan and Pahang to build palm oil plantations, vast lands are being cleared in the highlands to build more and more and more farms. Unrestricted farming is believed to be the cause of the devastating mud floods that killed six people in November 2014.

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(Left) Illegal farming is slowly stripping Cameron Highlands of forest cover. Image from Malay Mail. (Right) The 2014 mud flood incident which killed 6 people. Image from Sun Daily

Actually in 2015, the gomen launched Ops Gading where they cracked down on illegal farming and land encroachment. Unfortunately though, New Straits Times reported that these farmers went back to their old tricks barely one year after the operation.

In the end, we can only hope the authorities will take effective action on farmers who flout the laws. But in the meantime, we can also raise awareness, so that Malaysians will become informed consumers when buying vegetables. It’s good to know where your food come from, or else you’ll be getting more than just vitamins and fibre from your greens.