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Independent.ie

Sunday 21 April 2019

PJ Phelan: 'Careless use of pesticides creates unacceptable risks for agriculture'

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PJ Phelan

PJ Phelan

Several years ago I visited a food and vegetable market in Cuba.

The tour guide was extremely proud of the range of produce available, yet I considered that there was nothing in the entire market that would pass the quality standards of our retail outlets.

Very few customers would purchase them. Everything had blemishes from either diseases or pests. It was obvious that pesticides were not used or, if they were, to very little effect.

If our markets were prepared to accept such produce and pay a premium price to compensate farmers for the lower yields, most farmers would be willing to do so.

Until that happens we will continue to use pesticides. Pesticide usage is regulated under the Statutory Instrument 155 of 2012.

The purpose of this instrument is to ensure that pesticide use is appropriate and that it will not damage human, animal or environmental health.

Two of the key components of the legislation are the specifications that all pesticide application is in accordance with Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and that only professional advisors, who participate in a minimum amount of training each year are permitted to recommend pesticides.

Every year, farmers who use pesticides are required to complete a check sheet to identify the measures they implement under IPM.

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It is a most useful tool that should be completed thoroughly as it highlights to the farmer the measures he is implementing and others that he may not be aware of such as use of adequate fertiliser and trace elements to reduce disease pressure.

IPM is in farmers' interests as it will optimise pesticide usage by utilising as many alternative options that are available to the farmer before selecting a pesticide and the rate to be used.

IPM reduces financial costs to the farmer, protects the environment and reduces the risk of diseases, weeds and insect pests developing resistance to pesticides.

While professional users (farmers) are allowed to make decisions and purchase pesticides for their own use, the only person allowed to recommend a pesticide for use is a qualified professional advisor. The advisor is required to advise in accordance with IPM.

However, while the system is fine in theory, all is not perfect in practice. Here are some of the issues I have identified with the system.

The current position where most distributors only stock a limited range of pesticides, for their own commercial reasons, is restrictive and at times results in less than ideal selection.

This year, on a small number of farms, fungicides were used in January, to control mildew on winter barley - that will have achieved nothing apart from putting extra cost on the farmer and creating risk of pesticide resistance.

In February nitrogen applications to winter cereals did nothing apart from increasing disease pressure.

There were several reports last year of MCPA contamination of watercourses.

Annually we have blanket recommendations for insecticides on spring cereals to prevent transmission of BYDV by aphids. Many of those applications are not justified, totally ignoring IMP and justified as only costing a few euros/ac.

The only reward for such use is the development of resistance to the pesticide and damage to beneficial insects.

Some farmers continue to look for 100pc control of weeds, pests and diseases despite no economic return.

Control of annual weeds in cereal stubble does not require the use of a pesticide if the land is ploughed well and everything turned over.

In grassland there are many cases of rushes being controlled on marginal grassland where stocking rates are low and there is no requirement for additional grass.

Much of that is being done in the fear that the land might be made ineligible for BPS. Rushes will not make land ineligible provided that animals continue to travel through them or that the land is topped.

Failure to observe buffer zones adjacent to watercourses in grassland tends to be a problem. It can be readily identified by both on the ground inspections by the Department and at office level with inspection of aerial photographs. In conclusion, we need pesticides for as long as the market demands current standards and we need the protection of the implementation of IPM and chemical use decisions made exclusively by qualified pesticide users or pesticide advisors.

Irresponsible usage either wilfully or through ignorance puts agriculture into unacceptable risk.

PJ Phelan is a tillage advisor based in Tipperary and is a member of the ACA and ITCA

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