In modern agriculture, agrochemical applications are a common practice used to manage crop nutrient requirements and control damaging pest and disease outbreaks. The usage of these agrochemicals, however, comes with its own risks towards the surrounding environment and human health. If managed irresponsibly, pesticides in particular have the potential to pollute water resources and reduce populations of beneficial species (e.g. pollinators). A recent article published in Nature Geoscience found that an estimated 64% of agricultural land globally (roughly 2.45 billion ha) is at risk of pesticide pollution. Exposure to pesticides can result in immediate, acute-effects on human health and potentially also long-term, chronic effects – this risk is particularly relevant to people handling pesticides and to communities located near to pesticide application areas. Pesticide users therefore have a responsibility to ensure that environmental risks, human health risks and potential negative impacts are reduced as far as possible. Producers can utilize a number of different strategies to reduce these risks – starting from responsible pesticide storage and mixing up until to the physical pesticide applications.

How can pesticide risks be lowered?

In South Africa, pesticide storage units and mixing points on farms should be constructed according to the SANS 10206 guidelines – these guidelines outline how agrochemical handling, storage, and disposal should be performed. This includes: where pesticide stores are to be located, how chemical filling points are to be constructed and how empty pesticide containers are to be disposed of – the main aim is to prevent potential negative impacts to human and environmental health. An additional measure to prevent excessive amounts of pesticides being applied is to annually calibrate spray equipment used in pesticide applications.

As important as having well-functioning infrastructure and equipment is, it is equally important that staff handling pesticides are well-trained and understand how to use pesticides in a safe manner. By providing regular staff training to spray operators on safe and appropriate handling of chemicals, negative impacts to both human and environmental health can be further reduced.

Rising to the next level: Integrated Pest Management

A pest management approach that is fast-becoming a widely accepted practice globally is the principle of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM includes a combination of various strategies that are used to prevent, monitor and control pest and disease outbreaks whilst limiting the usage of pesticides as far as possible. The South African agricultural industry already has a well-respected reputation for the implementation of IPM programmes. For example, Citrus Research International (CRI – the citrus industry’s research organisation) has developed IPM programmes to manage False Codling Moth and Fruit Fly, amongst other pests, whilst Hortgro Science (the stone and pome fruit industry’s research organisation) regularly partners with Stellenbosch University to investigate potential IPM strategies (for pests such as fruit weevils). Through the usage of IPM methods and other preventative actions, the environment can be provided with an extra safeguard against potential negative impacts from pesticide applications. These methods used by the South African agricultural industry include:

  • Only applying pesticides in suitable weather conditions (e.g. sunny, windless days);
  • Applying pesticide products based off of pest and disease monitoring – once a threshold is reached, the appropriate control method can then be utilised;
  • Avoiding the usage of generalist pesticides that have the potential to effect numerous non-target organisms (e.g. pollinator or predacious insects) – selective pesticides specific to the pest or disease targeted should be chosen as far as possible;
  • Making use of low toxicity or non-chemical pesticides (e.g. organic or biologically-based products), where feasible;
  • Choosing targeted application methods instead of methods that are high-risk for pesticide drift (e.g. aerial spraying);
  • Maintaining buffer zones of indigenous vegetation around natural areas and water courses located near to cropland – these buffer zones assist in filtering out pesticides before they reach a natural area or water course.

SIZA Environmental programme – a key partner

By partnering with SIZA, assimilating research performed by industry associations (e.g. CRI and Hortgro Science) and implementing the SIZA Environmental Standard, the South African agricultural industry can follow these strategies to responsibly manage cropland pests and diseases whilst reducing environmental risks as far as possible. A valuable supporting programme available to the South African agricultural industry is the SIZA Digital Recordkeeping programme which can be used to understand and monitor the amount of pesticides being used, types of crop protection products being used (fungicides, insecticides and herbicides) and the nature of the products being used (organic, synthetic and biological).

By using the risk reduction methods outlined in the SIZA Environmental Standard, South African agricultural produce can be cultivated using wise pesticide management practices, without causing accidental environmental damage to surrounding natural ecosystems and the community-at-large.