Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 August 2005
Issue No. 755
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Surviving the watermelon

The food poisoning scandal centring on Egypt's favourite summer fruit, Yasmine Fathi reports, has opened a Pandora's box of questions about consumption and production in Egypt

Click to view caption
A watermelon seller laments his ill fortune

According to a Ministry of Health report, 196 cases of food poisoning resulting from watermelon consumption occurred in Cairo. The first cases were reported on 17 June, and investigations quickly traced the fruit back to the Obour market, where produce is brought over from Beheira, Sharqiya and Kafr Al-Sheikh. Toxic levels of carbamate, a pesticide, were found in the 97 samples tested; and traces of it were picked up in the patients' stomachs. On 21 June, another 307 cases were reported in Sohag, where the samples contained toxic levels of another pesticide. According to Nashwa Radwan of Qasr Al-Aini's National Egyptian Centre of Toxicologic Research (NECTR), whole families arrived complaining of diarrhoea, colic, vomiting and mild fever. Since such symptoms are common to all kinds of food poisoning, it was constriction of the eyes, excessive urination and salivation, tremours and a drunken gait that pointed physicians in the right direction. Tests revealed that organophosphate, a compound found in pesticides, had inhibited an important enzyme known as choline-esterase: "Do you understand what happens to the body when an enzyme stops doing its work?" Unlike most cases of food poisoning, this kind of problem requires, in addition to "stomach pumping", administering an antidote within four hours of the toxins entering the bloodstream; incorrect diagnosis will have catastrophic consequences: "Within a month a patient can suffer a stroke, paralysis or any number of central-nervous- system complications..."

Already Youssef Abdel-Rahman, former undersecretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, is facing multiple charges including importation of toxic chemicals. The prime suspect in a trial of 21 defendants including an employee of the Egyptian Company for Production, Marketing and Exporting of Agricultural Crops, Randa El-Shami, who allegedly received bribes, Abdel-Rahman's sentence of ten years in prison was revoked as the cessation court accepted an appeal for retrial on 21 July. In a letter to Al-Ahram Weekly, former agriculture minister Youssef Wali, who had testified during the trial, denied the existence of any hazardous pesticides in Egypt; he submitted US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents proving that all pesticides imported by the ministry are registered in their country of origin and widely used in the US, Europe and Japan. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as well as the EPA, he added, research pesticides and their hazardous side effects; a list of which is provided by the WHO on the Internet. No banned pesticides were used in Egypt while he was in office. Yet it is claimed that, by dissolving the pesticide supervision committee in 1999, Wali paved the way for the importation of banned chemicals. In his letter the former minister pointed out that, to replace the committee, an even stricter pesticide supervision office was set up and remained active until 2003, when the committee of recommendation and registration of pesticides was formed. Measures had been taken to control pesticide use, Wali added: prohibiting aeroplane spraying throughout the country and the use of chemical pesticides in the southern Delta; planting self-reliant strains to reduce the need for pesticides; and using so called safe bacteria in 265,000 feddans.

But if they are to be effective at all, pesticides will by definition be toxic. Thus Mustafa Abdel-Sattar, director of the ministry's pesticide laboratory: "Whenever I look at a newspaper I find articles saying that pesticides are poisonous -- well of course they are. How else would they kill the pests?" Manufactured only in Japan and the West, pesticides are the product of decades- long, expensive research, Abdel-Sattar explains: a specialist starts with a very large number of compounds, testing them for both effectiveness and safety, and arriving at the one to be used by a process of exclusion; the standards are exacting and internationally supervised. On arrival, a given pesticide undergoes three more years of research before its use is sanctioned in Egypt: "It's rather an issue of misuse. Pesticide containers come with the instructions written on them: for each there is a pre-harvest period, which is how long a farmer should wait between spraying the pesticide and collecting the produce. Shockingly, many Egyptian farmers just spray, cut and eat." Nabil El-Sherbini, vice- dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo University, agrees. It is this and similar failures -- raising the concentration of the solution to be sprayed, or (illegally) blending different chemicals -- that results in food poisoning.

According to MP El-Badri Farghali, however, illegal pesticides did enter the country over the last five years; for three years he has been submitting reports on the issue: "They just wouldn't discuss it. Even when the watermelon scandal turned into a national crisis, the parliament remained silent." Farghali insists that he has in his possession documents that establish that the ministry under Wali imported cheap illegal pesticides from western Asia: "The more hazardous, the lower the price. And they entered the country by ministerial decree." For his part Ibrahim Said, head of the Basatin Research Centre, concurs, that Wali asked farmers to return the pesticides and take their money back when he realised they were unsafe. But Farghali finds this suggestion absurd: "Surely that's impossible after a pesticide has been sprayed."

Officials are having to answer to an angry public on a range of questions now that the issue has been raised. Interviewees like Essam El-Moslemani, a mechanic, and Nagla Ali, a secretary, for example, complained of baladi (local) fruit disappearing. Fruits are now larger and prettier, but they have no taste -- something generally blamed on hormone injections. But El-Sherbini insists that, rather than hormones, the fruit changed because, though tastier, baladi varieties had too many practical limitations -- so the ministry decided to import different strains. In contrast to traditional Meit Ghamr peaches, for example, of which a feddan could produce no more than two tonnes, a feddan produces up to seven tonnes of the imported alternative: " Baladi fruits proved costly, so their prices skyrocketed -- LE1.50 in contrast to LE50 -- and the public would complain... The new strains also have an early, middle and late season, so unlike baladi fruits, they are available for a far longer period of time." Said adds that the new varieties are hardier and therefore more easily transported -- an opinion fruit vendor Hussein Ali did not share: "The new, big fruits actually rot much faster, truth to tell. Every other hour, we throw away fruit."

Export markets, El-Sherbini added, are behind the shift: "Egyptians eat with their tongues, foreigners eat with their eyes. They prefer the larger, better looking fruit with a longer shelf life." It was the export market, too, Said insisted, that drove Egyptians to introduce hormones into the cultivation of grapes: "Only grapes. Because export specifications cannot otherwise be met. In the 1980s and 1990s some farmers did use hormones to speed up growth or produce a stronger colour in other fruits. The practice was discontinued in and of itself when these crops failed in the market." But hormones are not the only issue. Ali, for one, believed the reason behind changes in locally produced fruit to be genetic engineering. Yet Taymour Nasreddin, deputy director of the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute, dismissed all such claims: "People think we're giving them Frankenstein food. The trouble is, very few understand what genetic engineering is."

To alter the DNA structure o f a given organism through manipulating its constituent elements (genes) in order to change its characteristics -- the practise is not necessarily bad. A pest-resistant gene procured from bacteria and introduced into the genetic composition of a given plant, for example, will produce a self- reliant generation of that plant, reducing the need for pesticides. Genetic engineering is not used to invent new fruits, or to increase their size or other characteristics, Nasreddin added. Throughout the world, only four agricultural products have been genetically engineered: corn, canola, cotton, and soy beans; and none of the modified varieties have been grown in Egypt so far. Perhaps it is pesticides, after all, that solicit attention.

THE GENE BANK: Inaugurated on 6 October, 2004, in the Agriculture Research Centre in Cairo, the National Gene Bank (NGB), funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, aims to preserve the genetic composition of native plants, animals and micro-organisms, especially those subject to going extinct. "Our mission," explains Mohamed El-Hawari, head of the NGB's scientific office, "is to collect, save, multiply, re-generate and document the genetic composition of living things." Including, presumably, baladi fruits: "Herbicides and pesticides that protect some plants have completely destroyed others. Six thousand species of plant go extinct every year." Protectorates minimise or eliminate human intervention, while the bank brings the organisms into an artificially maintained environment within the bank premises, the research centre hopes to ensure the survival of Egypt's living matter. The bank's principal activity is to preserve seeds, but if tomatoes from certain areas are found to be tolerant of salinity, for example, the bank isolates the gene marker responsible for this quality and cross breed with tomatoes grown in other saline areas. Egypt being the world's fifth greatest producer of wheat -- a crop that has survived continuously since ancient times -- the NGB has managed to isolate and preserve the gene responsible for such longevity. "As soon as we've made a discovery we transfer its practical benefit to the farmer. We always concentrate on potential problems, we undertake sample-gathering expeditions into areas where a species has already gone extinct, or where the soil is of low quality or the temperature high. In Toshka, temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celcius, so if we find the gene markers of plants that have tolerated heat elsewhere, we will manage to grow them successfully in Toshka." Though dependent on genetic research, such breeding activities, El-Hawari stressed, involve no genetic engineering whatsoever: "It's called traditional breeding, and it's different from genetic engineering in that it doesn't involve manipulating the genetic structure of a dissimilar organism. In traditional breeding I move from rice to rice, tomatoes to tomatoes. In genetic engineering I can even move from rats to tomatoes." Genetic conservation has been taking place in the United States since the 1950s, and in Europe since the 1970s. The founding of the NGB, a project planned for the 1980s, was delayed by red tape. Though far behind, El-Hawari insists, Egypt has the opportunity to catch up yet. "Only people must understand how crucial this project is. We must not let any of our native species disappear; they are priceless. But sadly this is something of which even the consumer who resents it has understanding."

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