English-speaking people grow up with the knowledge that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but the healthy image of this popular fruit is tainted in the eyes of some people by the number of pesticide treatments apples can be subject to.
Diseases such as apple scab (Venturia inequalis ) and fire blight (Erwinia amylovora ), and pests such as codling moth (Cydia pomonella ) and rosy aphid (Disaphis plantaginea ) threaten the profitability of apple growing and have to be controlled in European apple orchards. It’s a situation not helped by the fact that many of the most widely grown apple varieties are particularly vulnerable to these problems.
ENDURE’s research team focusing on the socio-economic driving forces that affect crop protection strategies has been examining in detail their influence on European apple growers. By understanding these driving forces, the team believes, it should become possible to produce realistic recommendations for implementing farming systems that are less reliant on pesticides.
The team, led by researchers from Agroscope in Switzerland, has just completed a report on their investigations in four specific apple growing regions in Europe and it makes illuminating reading.
The four regions were selected as representatives of four particular plant protection strategies, assesssed in terms of the quantities of pesticides applied and the characteristics and intrinsic properties of the active ingredients used (active ingredients are the components of pesticides that actually do the work of defeating the pest). The intrinsic properties included such things as toxicity for humans, potential risk for groundwater (a growing concern for farmers across Europe as the EU works towards the introduction of its Groundwater Directive) and side-effects on beneficial organisms and so forth.
The regions selected were:
Lerida, Spain: Selected for its low-intensity of pesticide use using active ingredients with conventional inherent properties. Here yields average 26.8 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) and the most widely grown variety is Golden Delicious.
Kent, United Kingdom: Selected for its low-intensity of pesticide use using active ingredients with novel properties (for example, lower toxicity). Here yields average 24.9 t/ha and the most widely grown variety is Gala.
Lake Constance, Germany: Selected for its high-intensity of pesticide use using active ingredients with novel properties. Here yields average 35.7 t/ha and the most widely grown variety is Jonagold.
Emilia-Romagna, Italy: Selected for its high-intensity of pesticide use using active ingreditents with conventional properties. Here yields average 28.9 t/ha and the most widely grown variety is Fuji.
For each region, members of the research team, led by José Hernandez (pictured right), conducted interviews with different stakeholders who influence pesticide use decisions and this was complemented with analysis of statistical and scientific information.
The team established that the motivational aspects of using pesticides are guided by economic and food safety aims. Economic because farmers seek to make a profit and food safety because the aim is to have the least possible pesticide residues in apples. The underlying factor behind these objectives is market access, specifically access to supermarket sales which account for the largest share of the apple trade. For example, supermarkets in Germany sell 70% of the apples produced in Lake Constance, while in the UK supermarkets account for 84% of total apple sales.
Ensuring access to these markets has profound effects on the crop protection strategies employed by apple growers in the regions under consideration. Farmers wanting to sell through supermarkets apply pesticicdes in quantities that ensure a low risk of crop loss while the type of products applied are defined by commercially established standards, which are enforced through private certification schemes such as, for example, GLOBALGAP (Good Agricultural Practices).
GLOBALGAP is the most widespread standard, say researchers, and was set up by the Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group with the aim of guaranteeing the safety of produce and establishing environmentally friendly practices in agriculture.
Alongside GLOBALGAP, most regions also have their own guidelines for integrated production, and many supermarkets have their own certification systems too. The latter are interesting, not least for the fact that the Maximum Residue Levels of pesticides on fruit that are considered acceptable are often much lower than the legal standards, in some cases by up to 80%.
The researchers say knowledge about crop protection issues, such as pest thresholds and disease modelling, is well developed in these regions, as are the advisory services and training. Both policies and the private certification schemes help support this.
They note that the information on tactical strategies given to fruit growers is aimed towards meeting safety standards rather than using all the available technical resources, as might be more typical in a classic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme. For example, few disease resistant varieties are grown, and the use of authorised active ingredients is restricted and partial maximum residue levels are demanded under the certification schemes that grant access to supermarket sales.
This, say the researchers, throws up an interesting challenge for policy makers. The new Framework Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides promotes general standards for IPM across Europe, while the current scene, at least as far as apple growing is concerned, is dominated by commercially oriented standards whose aim is to produce fruit fit for the market rather than move towards true IPM growing systems.
From 2014 Member States will be expected to introduce National Action Plans focusing on IPM, which suggests the state would have to assume the role currently performed by the private sector in the certification process, which will be costly financially and also require considerable human and technical resources.
For more details about the report, contact ENDURE.
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