Pesticides in Cola:
From controversy to debate
The question of pesticides in Indian cola drinks has attracted worldwide attention. The cola companies themselves are worried about declining sales in India while there is the larger question of the effect of the controversy on the inward flow of foreign funds. The pesticide producers on their part are concerned about the bad name the controversy brings them. The International Herald Tribune has carried an editorial- page essay with the tell-tale title “A dishonest campaign against U.S. colas” , whereas The Financial Times has noticed the irony that health concerns over pesticides have not stopped thousands of people from “guzzling” sweet sea water in Mumbai unmindful of the “sewerage that drains nearby” .
There is need to transform the controversy into a debate. Some time ago medical doctors in USA advised children not to sip cola but instead to use a drinking straw, with a view to preventing damage to the teeth enamel. Quite obviously, there is a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of the cola culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Indian young men sought to acquire smartness by smoking cigarettes in the Dev Anand style (The brand did not matter). Smoking has since been deglamourized. Hopefully, cola’s turn will come soon.
Traditionally people have drunk drinks made out of local water. With bottled drinks, water extracted from a single location is consumed over a large territory. Since a litre of cola making requires about four litres of water , the water table under a cola manufacturing unit sinks very low in a wide and deep cone. Cola plants are not good for plants in their neighbourhood.
The cola question at hand is technical rather than social or ecological and therefore easier to address. Cola companies pump out ground water, treat it for bacteria and suspended particles, and then apply their secret formula to produce the glamourous concoction. Of course , the deeper the ground water is extracted from , the purer it will be. Some cola plants presumably use surface water, which must be chemically treated. What chemistry do the cola companies perform on the water before it is made into cola? This is a question that awaits answer from them.
The chemical composition of the cola drink would vary from place to place and from season to season. Pesticides enter ground water as a result of agricultural activity. Thus ground water in agriculturally advanced states like Punjab and Andhra can be expected to be richer in pesticides than say in Rajasthan. Also, during summer , when the water table dips , pesticide concentration would increase , while rains would bring dilution.
The first step should be to test these hypotheses and quantify the phenomenon through reliable, multiply-validated, scientific data. Although the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment justifiably commands high prestige, government institutions should play a role. Towards this end, a filled bottle with recorded place and date of manufacture should be procured and its contents distributed among relevant national labs and technical universities (such as IITs and IISc) , who should announce their findings publicly and simultaneously. For comparison , plain ground / surface water taken from the same location and at the same time should also be examined. The experiment should be repeated by taking samples at different times and from different locations. The results from different centres should tally within experimental errors.
Nobody has ever suggested that cola companies are deliberately lacing their colas with pesticides. But at least in some cases they must be chemically treating the water. It is also not clear what effect the cola-making process has on the concentration of toxics already present in the water or in adding new ones. The circumstance that many food items available in the market have higher toxic content than the colas is not quite relevant. Suppose cola was produced in some pristine environment in Uttaranchal or Himachal where the water is free of all chemicals. Will the companies then be adding toxics to bring the contamination up to the national average?
Many people naively believe that a bottled drink is purer than tap water. They are only partially right. Cola is purer than tap water biologically and physically, but not chemically. Should the chemistry of ground water as it stands be the starting point for the manufacturers of bottled drinks, or should absolute standards be prescribed? This is a matter for public debate and legislative action.
In the meantime, the cola companies should clearly distinguish between the global and the local. What chemical processes are Indian waters subjected to before they are ready for the global secret formula? Does the cola making process enhance the concentration? Also , what is the chemical composition of ground water? Let us have on public record hard- core authentic scientific data from all sources. This will raise the level of debate and help reach a reasonable decision.