Stewardship Means Sustainability in Agriculture
November 22, 2021
Stewardship is essentially an ethic that supports the responsible planning and management of plant science products, including those applied to crops to manage pests that are chemical or biological in nature (crop protection products) and seed-based genetic traits that support pest management (biotech products). When used properly, these products boost crop productivity, protect harvests from pests, and improve production quality. All come with instructions on how they should be used. Stewardship provides additional support, reinforcing these instructions and helping clarify their implementation so that the products have a maximum effect.
Stewardship in agriculture, which uses 40 percent of the world’s land, is indispensable to food security and sustainable development. It enables conservation agriculture and healthy soil.
Stewardship includes many good agricultural practices whereby farmers:
Purchase legitimate products. Illegal pesticides that are counterfeit or unregistered for sale have no quality control, so their risks are unknown and unmanageable. Legal, authentic products have guidance on risk management on their labels.
Use personal protective equipment (PPE). Appropriate PPE should be used 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 may also be required based on the product and formulation. Governments, retailers, and the crop protection industry should work together to ensure PPE is available and pesticide purchasers are informed about PPE.
Store products wisely. 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 avoid any potential contamination.
Responsibly use pesticides. Pesticides should be handled with care and according to label instructions throughout their lifecycle, from storage to application to disposal, to reduce risks to human health and to the environment. Labels also indicate how long farmers should wait between the last spray, re-entering the field, and harvesting, which helps them comply with maximum residue levels for domestic checks, exports, and consumer safety.
Apply common sense. Farmers should not walk through spray mist when applying pesticides and minimize contact in general. In addition, spraying in the heat of the day can lead to dehydration and is likely less effective in targeting pests; farmers should spray in the morning and/or evening, which protects pollinators as well.
Adopt Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This way of farming combines the best cultural (including seed choice), biological, and chemical measures to manage disease and insect and weed pests. Its aim is to reduce the attractiveness of crops to pests while enabling as much natural control as possible. Pesticides are only used when they are required to stop significant reductions in harvest quantity or quality and even then, they are used at a time when they are least likely to affect beneficial organisms. With IPM, pests are managed, not eradicated.
Manage pest resistance to plant science products. Like bacteria with antibiotics, there is evolutionary selection pressure on pests to develop resistance to crop protection and biotech products. If the same pesticide is used season after season against the same pest, eventually the pests will develop resistance to that pesticide. Pest resistance to genetic traits in crops designed to control pests can also occur. The development of resistance results in crop loss or increased applications of pesticides. Resistance management uses different approaches, including IPM, crop and product rotation, and stacked genetic traits.
Properly dispose of empty pesticide containers. The crop protection industry works with governments to establish container management systems for the responsible disposal of empty pesticide containers. Farmers are encouraged to triple-rinse these containers and puncture them so that they cannot be reused. The containers are then taken to collection sites and either shredded and recycled or incinerated at high temperatures. In the past 15 years, more than 1 million tonnes of agricultural plastics have been collected, the majority of which have been recycled.
Safely dispose of obsolete stocks. CropLife International member companies work with partners to improve the procurement of pesticides so that appropriate quantities are purchased to manage sudden pest outbreaks. However, where over-purchasing led to the development of obsolete stocks, CropLife International is working with partners to catalog, safeguard, and destroy products that originated from its member companies.
Stewardship is aligned with COP26 commitments and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Four major threats to sustainability include land misuse, deforestation, habitat alteration and loss, and water-cycle alteration. Stewardship by farmers helps prevent or mitigate all of these threats.
Increasing cropped areas is a major cause of habitat loss. Boosting yields on existing farmland protects natural habitats by preventing further encroachment on them. Using authentic pesticides and applying them correctly significantly aids the effectiveness of agriculture and minimizes its environmental footprint.
IPM is a form of land sharing. It manages the farm environment to preserve biodiversity so that natural enemies and wildlife can share the land with crops and trees. IPM practices support natural ecosystems.
Professional pesticide applicators, precision agriculture, and farmer training by CropLife International member companies around the world facilitate the responsible use of pesticides. This protects beneficial insects like pollinators and makes good use of natural resources like water. For example, precision agriculture allows for spraying the correct amount of pesticide at night when pollinators are not active. Training empowers subsistence farmers to make better decisions long term. Removing obsolete pesticide stocks prevents wildlife habitat loss and water contamination. Managing empty pesticide containers exemplifies the circular payoff of stewardship on farms and the environment.
All these stewardship practices contribute to the COP26 goals and UN’s SDGs, in particular the following SDGs:
- Zero hunger (2) – Using plant science products greatly reduces crop losses to pests, which increases total food availability.
- Good health and well-being (3) – IPM and the responsible use of pesticides promote practices that lead to healthy food and work environments. For example, they prevent aflatoxin contamination of food and eliminate the need for hand-weeding, which can lead to snake bites and back injuries.
- Decent work and economic growth (8) – Stewardship enables farmers to produce for certified production schemes, e.g. Global GAP, which promote decent work conditions and provide production dividends. CropLife International also cultivates private sector Spray Service Providers, which increases rural employment.
- Responsible Consumption (12) – The responsible use of pesticides prevents residues on crops, ensuring the highest level of safety for consumers.
- Life on Land (15) – Stewardship minimizes the environmental footprint of crop protection. IPM enhances biodiversity within crop fields and increased yields from good agricultural practices reduce the land area required to feed the world.
- Partnerships for the Goals (17) – Stewardship is most effectively implemented in partnership to maximize outreach to farmers and standardize important messaging.
Ultimately, stewardship makes agriculture sustainable to make climate change survivable and keep our planet viable.
Andrew Ward, Ph.D. is Director of Stewardship for CropLife International in Brussels, Belgium.