Farmers take safe pesticide application seriously

Sometimes I wonder whether we’re actually hard-wired to be instantly attracted to bad news and shocking revelations. I see negativity often dominating our 24-hour news cycle, leaving the less sensational but equally important good news to fall by the wayside.

More and more people are now writing and reporting about food, farming, science and the environment. These are current, interesting topics that affect all of us on daily basis, whether we consciously realize it or not. And yet fewer people than ever have much of an in-depth understanding of them, affecting both the way we cover and the way we interpret news.

Shocking stories about pesticides and food are natural headline grabbers. Yet here’s an Ontario pesticide and water story that didn’t make the headlines – but should have. To me, it shows great progress from an environmental protection point of view, highlights the health of our water and our land, and helps put the responsible use of crop protection in agriculture into perspective.

The Ontario government recently released the results of a long-term study conducted into the presence of pesticides in Ontario’s municipal drinking water. The results showed a massive decrease in pesticide presence in treated surface water, from 86 per cent in 1986 to only three per cent in 2006. And all of the incidences discovered in this recent round of testing were below the thresholds that Health Canada – the federal government body responsible for our food and health – have deemed to be acceptable.

Water sources sampled in this study represent about 90 per cent of Ontario’s municipal residential water systems, including many from agriculturally dense regions, where the vast majority of pesticides are used in Ontario.

This is a good news story for Ontarians and for the environment.

First of all, it’s an excellent indication that farmers are using crop protection products responsibly and that pesticide training programs are working. Over the last two decades, Ontario farmers have voluntarily reduced their use of pesticides by more than 50 per cent.

This is due in large part to a farmer-requested government program that requires all farmers to take a course on safe handling, use and storage if they want to buy and use crop protection materials – and certification has to be renewed every five years to make sure their knowledge keeps up with new advances.

These survey results also show that on-farm conservation practices such as grassed water ways and buffer zones around creeks and streams are making positive impacts on preventing pesticides from getting into water sources. The Environmental Farm Plan program is a big factor in this success. Over the last four years alone, Ontario farmers have invested approximately $120 million of their own dollars in on-farm environmental improvements, supported by government cost-share contributions of approximately $80 million.

Also important to note with this study are the incredible leaps we’ve made in our detection technology. It is due to the exactitude of our modern detection techniques that we can now find residues at parts per trillion, where once we were measuring parts per million.

It’s hard for me to image the scope of that, except that it sounds like a miniscule amount. One industry expert I consulted explained it like this: if parts per million is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, parts per trillion is finding a microscopic mildew spore on a piece of chaff in that haystack.

All of this shows that it pays for us to continue to be vigilant and responsible in how we use pesticides and that farmers know what they are doing when it comes to safe, responsible use. They’re not just looking after their own land, air and water, but they’re also looking after the rest of us – managing our soils, helping to safeguard our water and most importantly, growing our food.

This article was printed in the Guelph Mercury on June 23, 2010.

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