Pesticide risk reduction in the Cook Islands

From by Christine Fuell
Pesticide risk reduction in the Cook Islands

I recently had the opportunity to work on Rarotonga, the largest of a series of 15 islands which make up the Cook Islands Archipelago. Agriculture and fishing are key industries for many families there. Located in the South Pacific, between American Samoa to the west and French Polynesia to the east, the islands face a number of persistent problems ranging from climate change, food security, nutrition and the unsustainable use of pesticides.

Protecting the biodiversity and safeguarding ecosystems there is essential if agricultural productivity is to be boosted in a sustainable manner. The practice of sustainable agriculture lies at the heart of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ efforts to protect the world’s natural resource base. Essentially, it means building productive agriculture systems that conserve and enhance those resources. 

Current estimates indicate that the world will need around 60 percent more food than is available today by 2050 if global population and food consumption trends continue along the current pattern. So, the challenge is upon us. 

On the Cook Islands, meeting the population’s food and nutritional needs is made extra difficult by their heavy dependency on imports. What food is grown on the Islands is threatened by pests. This is where pesticides come into the picture. Pesticides play an important role in reducing losses in crop production; they are substances meant to protect crops and destroy any pest. If used unsafely they can have serious impacts on both human health and the environment. 

While some pesticides are banned or severely restricted in some countries, they continue to be exported to other countries, increasingly through South-South trade between newly emerging economies.

The Rotterdam Convention with its Secretariat provided jointly by the FAO and UNEP, helps to provide early warning on dangerous pesticides and prevents their un-wanted international trade. We aim to increase the capacity of global governments to make informed decisions on whether they can handle the risks of certain pesticides without compromising ecosystem services and biodiversity. The Convention is part of UN-wide attempts to reduce the risk posed by pesticides in farming as well as to raise awareness of these dangers among those most affected: farming communities in poor rural parts of the world. 

Women often bear the biggest burden. They make up to 70 percent of the world’s agricultural workforce and it is our responsibility to provide them with all available information to protect themselves and their families under the specific conditions of use that prevail in many developing countries. The Rotterdam Convention does this by collecting results-based evidence and notifying decision makers and global governments so that they can make informed decisions.

This is why FAO is promoting viable and sustainable pest management mechanisms in the Pacific and beyond. We also want to see more environmentally friendly alternatives to hazardous pesticides being used. 11 countries from the region gathered on Rarotonga to discuss these alternatives; in particular those to control weeds without highly toxic paraquat formulations – which are currently widely used across the Pacific Islands. There was general agreement to apply locally-made and -owned solutions, including non-chemical approaches in order to improve horticultural practices and farmers’ livelihoods.

As the situation stands, the most recent studies by FAO suggest that 40 percent of annual crop losses are caused by insects, weeds and pathogens. Global pesticide use has reached about three billion tons per year. We cannot allow this to continue.  

A major effort is needed to expand sustainable pest management approaches to build more resilient crop production systems and to reduce the reliance on pesticides. But where to start? Reaching out to those earning a living through farming is crucial. Strengthening pesticides management in developing countries and countries with an economy in transition is another one. We are already seeing results. Hundreds of farmers have been trained to develop their own ecosystem-based Integrated Pest Management strategies through Farmer Field Schools, which are based on an understanding of ecological pest management.

Sound pest and pesticide management contributes to sustainable crop production by maintaining or increasing yields, reducing crop losses, and improving incomes while minimising the adverse effects of pesticides to bolster social protection. If we get this message across loudly, it will resonate.

Pest control is as old as agriculture. Measures to protect crops using pesticides and minimise the associated health risks of their use are not new either. Although the appeal of using pesticides will prevail as long as they are cheap, readily available and perceived as a quick-fix answer to treat a problem – attitudes are changing and alternatives are hitting the market.