Study shows reduction in pesticide use

Farmers proved to be stewards of the land for 25 years running

ontario farmers have long been proud of the fact that they’ve voluntarily reduced their pesticide use by more than 50 percent over the last two decades. So when the latest edition of the Ontario pesticide use study was released last year showing an increase in product use, questions were raised. Had Ontario’s farmers suddenly turned their backs on sustainability and environmental responsibility?

Definitely not, says the Vice Chair of AGCare, a coalition of  farm organizations that represents crop and horticulture farmers on environmental issues.

“Ontario farmers are – and continue to be – stewards of the land who take environmental responsibility very seriously,” says Chris Kowalski, a potato grower from the Alliston area. “Yes, the survey showed some increases in usage, but the numbers alone don’t tell the real story.”

The survey, conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) using data from the 2008 crop year, showed that agricultural pesticide use in Ontario increased by approximately 15 percent in the period since 2003, when measured by the total active ingredient. Increases were recorded in fungicide use, as well as glyphosate and in products related to the production of wheat, soybeans, hay, canola and white beans – all changes that are easily explainable, according to Kowalski.

more acres and more disease risk
“We had above average amounts of rain in many part of Ontario in 2008, which meant increased disease threats for many crops,” he says.  “That means we have to use more crop protection in order to preserve plant health – but it’s a response to weather challenges    specific to that season, and not a change in stewardship.”

Ontario farmers have also expanded their acreages of certain field crops, such as soybeans, wheat and canola, which comes with a corresponding increase in product usage. And the growing popularity of glyphosate tolerant crops, like Roundup Ready soybeans or corn, is a key reason behind the increase in usage of those products as they simplify weed management.

“We’re seeing more and more varieties come to market that are glyphosate tolerant, so farmers are going to make use of those technologies,” Kowalski says. “Modern plants take more management but they also mean that we can feed more people with fewer resources and keep the cost of food affordable for consumers.”

about the study
The 2008 study included field, fruit and vegetable crops, as well as nursery, sod and ginseng, but did not cover greenhouse spraying, seed treatments or other forms of agricultural pesticides such as insect treatments for livestock or rodent control products.

The survey, whose primary focus is on agricultural pesticide use, has been conducted every five years since 1973. Ontario growers must be certified to use crop protection products by completing the Grower Pesticide Safety Course every five years. To complete the survey, certified farmers were randomly selected to track their product use throughout the 2008 growing season; approximately 1,300 completed forms were returned.

Prior to the 2008 survey, pesticide usage rates in Ontario had been steadily declining although it’s important to note that even with the increase in 2008, the overall use of pesticides has still decreased by an impressive 45 percent in the last 25 years.

pest management
Pesticide specialist Craig Hunter of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association attributes much of this success to a multi-year provincial government initiative called Food Systems 2002. Under this program, research into pesticide use and special pest control issues led to the registration of dozens of solutions to keep growers competitive. As well, the expansion and development of the Integrated Pest Management Program allowed for the hiring of field specialists who were able to work with growers to fine-tune the program.

“The result was both a reduction in pesticide use and better pest control overall,“ says Hunter.

Funding for this program expired in 2002, leading to a decrease in the number of government pest specialists and researchers and bringing competitive research projects to an end. However, ongoing support for pest management research and technology development is critical to the future of the industry, says corn grower and Grain Farmers of Ontario director Larry Lynn. 

“We need access to new chemistry and new technologies so it is critical to get research dollars allocated to those areas,” says Lynn. “Farmers are good stewards and in this day and age, nobody can afford to spend a whole lot of money without a decent return.”
 
Kowalski agrees that ongoing support for pest management is necessary, but he also sees a need for investment in plant breeding to help farmers keep on top of pests and reduce pesticide use.

“Plants need to be bred for general hardiness and not just specific traits,” he says. “Industry-led advancements in seeds and crop protection are great, but there’s also a key role for publicly funded seed breeding to help ensure farmers have choice.”

The Ontario pesticide use survey is scheduled to be repeated again in 2013. •