Andrew Ward, Ph.D.
Director of Stewardship
Andrew Ward, Ph.D.
Director of Stewardship
By Andrew Ward
Stewardship in agriculture includes the responsible storage, handling and disposal of pesticides to ensure worker, consumer and environmental safety. Pesticides are like cars; if you take care of them, use them according to rules, properly maintain them and retire them when appropriate, they are extremely beneficial with minimum risks to safety.
To minimize risks with pesticides, farmers should start by purchasing legitimate products, not illegal ones that are not registered for sale or counterfeit. There is no quality control with such products, so it is much harder to manage their risks. Legal products will have guidance on risk management on their labels. Generally speaking, more modern products and formulations are more expensive, but they have lower risk and require fewer sprays, which adds value long-term economically and environmentally.
The second line of defense is the use or appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) according to product label instructions. Basic PPE consists of gum boots, gloves, long cotton pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Goggles or a respiration mask is not always required; it depends on the product and formulation. Governments, retailers and the crop protection industry should work together to ensure that appropriate PPE is available and people are informed about what and why PPE is required. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations provides PPE guidance.
To minimize risks with pesticides, farmers should start by purchasing legitimate products, not illegal ones that are not registered for sale or counterfeit.
Moreover, following label instructions is advised along with common sense. For example, spraying in heat of day can lead to dehydration. So, farmers should spray in the morning and/or evening, which protects pollinators as well. They should not walk through sprayed areas when applying pesticides and minimize contact with them overall. Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which calls for only applying pesticides when needed, should be applied.
Domestic residue levels should be in line with Codex Alimentarius or another verifiable standard for consumer health. For example, farmers should adhere to product label guidance on how long they should wait between the last spray and harvesting. Compliance with maximum residue levels is good agricultural practice that often increases farmer profitability. Fortunately, product formulations are safer today as well. Note biologicals typically have low toxicity but still must be handled carefully.
Farmers should prevent accidental exposure to pesticides by storing them in a locked room or box. A storage room should have adequate ventilation and limited access. Farmers should have a plan to manage any spillage and be careful not to let a pesticide go anywhere it shouldn’t.
The second line of defense is the use or appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) according to product label instructions.
Different pesticide application technologies present different risks. Often mechanized application reduces risk as it puts distance between the product and applicator. Potential exposure has been further reduced through closed transfer systems (where closed product containers are put directly into sprayer tanks), which are also being developed for knapsack sprayers carried on backs. Nonetheless, knapsack sprayers should be well maintained to ensure they do not leak and nozzles function effectively. Precision farming – near real-time observation, measurement and response to variability in crops – further reduces the risk of pesticide exposure to the applicator although environmental risk management needs to be carefully implemented. The use of drones also minimizes exposure, but applicators must wear PPE when loading and cleaning drones.
Technologies like drones and precision farming equipment can be accessed by smallholder farmers through private sector crop protection service providers, who are trained in the responsible application of pesticides. In Asia, for example, entrepreneurs are selling drone-spraying service to farmers for crop management. These drone operators should be trained and certified in all aspects of the responsible use of pesticides and IPM. In addition, there should be an emergency plan if a drone crashes. Drone operators can serve a greater number of farmers than Spray Service Providers using knapsack sprayers. They can also better target pests. This model has a lot of potential for crop protection in developing countries. In developed countries, farmers may buy their own drones and get certified to use them.
Government regulatory legislation is needed to use drones in agriculture. Brazil just passed legislation to do so, including the application of biologicals. India and Sudan recently approved the temporary use of drones to spray highly hazardous pesticides for locust control.
Technologies like drones and precision farming equipment can be accessed by smallholder farmers through private sector crop protection service providers, who are trained in the responsible application of pesticides.
Within a supportive policy framework, the professionalization of crop protection services can bring additional benefits. Certification of these professionals will reinforce risk management and support the implementation of IPM. As well, by managing pests for multiple farms, these pesticide applicators can implement effective resistance management strategies. They will be able to use the most effective and safe products to control pests, just charging for the amount of pesticide used. They can be more easily reached with information on best practices and new innovations. Such professionalization would also improve the proper disposal of empty pesticide containers.
The crop protection industry has already taken leadership in removing 1 million empty plastic pesticide containers from the environment. Triple-rinsing and then puncturing these containers is promoted among farmers to properly dispose of them. In 2019, container management was done in 59 countries. Setting up programs to do so has been a major investment by CropLife International member companies and associations.
CropLife International is currently working with the German government development agency (GIZ) to train 1 million rice famers on IPM and the responsible use of pesticides. The challenge is ascertaining how farmer trainings lead to behavioral change. This information will help refine training conducted by CropLife associations which trained 5 million people between 2005 and 2020 (a recent average of 400,000 per year). Digital communication has greatly increased the scale of outreach.
What can be done to make PPE more widely purchased and used by farmers? Behavioral science informs about the impact of stewardship training, PPE kit sales and farmer behavior. So CropLife International, Asia and India hired behavioral research experts to do a landscape study on farmer use of PPE in India. They are doing a lot of work to promote PPE and improve messaging around it with the goal of increasing uptake and regular usage of PPE among 150,000 Indian farmers in three states.
The study shows the importance of collaborative efforts in risk management and PPE promotion with support from governments, the private sector (including those involved in inputs and outputs), media, health facilities and community organizations among others. This is in alignment with the FAO International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management.
Together, pesticide management will continue to improve, protecting the health of everyone.
Andrew Ward, Ph.D., is director of stewardship for CropLife International in Brussels, Belgium.
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