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Farmers reach new milestone in sustainability drive

I suspect most people think farmers should avoid using crop protection products such as pesticides.

However, pests persist, so farmers need to control them and protect their crops. Otherwise, food for humans and feed for livestock is at risk.

The key is to control crops safely, effectively and as economically as possible.

Federal agencies put pesticide companies through the wringer before they allow a new crop protection chemistry to be introduced. It takes about a decade and costs at least $250 million to get a product into farmers’ hands.

Much of that time and cost is safety testing. Developers (i.e. companies) carry out tests to prove safety, then report test results to the government for scrutiny.

Naysayers don’t like the system. If you trust neither industry nor the government, then you are surely not going to trust pesticide product approvals.  

But the reality is that crop protection products serve a huge role in agriculture. CropLife International, an industry-sponsored advocacy group for crop protection, says food crops globally compete with 30,000 species of weeds, 3,000 species of microscopic worms called nematodes and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects.

And even with modern crop protection products, between 20-40 per cent of potential food production is lost every year to pests.That’s problem when a growing population needs to be fed.

Agriculture is getting better at policing itself when it comes to crop protection. It knows people won’t tolerate unsustainable measures, and it doesn’t want to be legislated out of existence.

For example, on Tuesday, the National Corn Growers Association in the U.S. released new sustainability goals in which it vowed to make huge strides in the next 10 years towards water and land efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction, among other things. Farmers are listening to consumers’ concerns.

For the past 20 years in Canada, agricultural pesticide and fertilizer containers have been recycled through a stewardship organization called Cleanfarms. It’s just announced a big step –thanks to incentive programs and greater awareness efforts, a major surge has occurred in recycling these plastic containers.

It’s risen to76 per cent, six percentage points higher than 2019. That’s an all-time record for recycling empty ag plastic jugs in Canada. In total numbers, that meant farmers returned more than 5.5 million pesticide and fertilizer jugs 23 litres and smaller (the common size used by famers).

Cleanfarms says recovered agricultural plastics are recycled into new products such as farm drainage tile, flexible irrigation pipe and plastic bags.

The organization says that if placed end to end, five-million-plus recycled containers would stretch from Montreal, Quebec to Brandon, Manitoba.

That’s a scary image – not only for the amount of plastic being taken off the land by Cleanfarms, but also, for the amount of pesticides and fertilizer being applied to it.

Total applications are falling significantly, however. We need to support research that lets farmers do more with less, and be the best stewards possible.

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