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Swedes aim for market niche with pesticide reductions
by Hugh Maynard
Europeans are noted for being on-time, but Sweden's farmers have taken this precept to the extreme: their target of reducing agricultural pesticide use by 75% over a ten year period will be met in 1995 - in only nine years. What is equally remarkable is that Sweden already had one of the lowest rates of pesticide application amongst developed nations, a rate that is now almost half of its nearest rival - Canada.
Despite this success, the Swede's have no intention of stopping the process just because they're ahead of schedule. The Scandinavian country's objective is to make their farm and food produce the cleanest in Europe, taking advantage of that reputation to enhance their share of the European agri-food market.
"No (chemical) residue is accepted in food or in the water. We have a certification system for food from the farm to the table," said Eva Tejle-EkbjÖrn, a member of the Swedish Farmers' Union (SFU) board of directors during a late-winter tour of eastern Canadian agricultural meetings sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation. That is essentially the SFU's commitment to Swedish consumers, to produce the best food in the world, and one which they are fully prepared to be judged by in the open market.
"Consumers must know what farmers are doing, and we must also live up to our promises. The fight is in the supermarket," emphasized Tejle-EkbjÖrn.
Motivated by a general concern that Swedish agricultural policies were subsidizing farmers to produce more using chemical inputs, which then became an environmental problem, multi-party co-operation has been the key element in allowing Sweden's farmers to be able to move so quickly on this issue With a significant segment of the food processing sector owned by farmers through cooperatives, the production and processing components of the industry have been able to move in lock-step.
The SFU has also supported the Swedish government's platform of joining the European Union (EU), a position approved by a narrow margin in a 1994 referendum. The Swedish government has returned the favour by supporting the SFU's "world's best" policy for food production as their strategy for competing against a new flood of imports that will arrive with EU membership - as well as access to a potential market of 300 million consumers already swamped with agricultural surpluses.
While the Swede's have implemented a program aimed at reducing the presence of pesticides in the agri-food system - de-registration of old products, mandatory certification for producer use, and support initiatives such as sprayer inspection - the biggest factor according to Tejle-EkbjÖrn has been the change in attitude of Sweden's farmers. With the commitment in 1992 of SFU to become the world's best agricultural nation, the organization has set about instituting different mechanisms to make it happen.
"We have started an education program paid for by the SFU, and these round tables have achieved a 50% participation rate of farmers," says Tejle-EkbjÖrn. The SFU backs up the talk with training programs, as well as extension services that provide weather and other types of information essential for preventative pest management.
Tejle-EkbjÖrn believes that despite Sweden's success to date, further reductions in pesticide use will not be easy. She points out that the current reductions in pesticide use has been accomplished without significant reductions in yield or quality, but she is not sure how much further Swedish farmers will move toward a sustainable agriculture without some clearer alternatives.
"Further work on risk reduction involves difficult decisions for farmers and also imposes economical restrictions and extra costs. We know that pesticides are associated with consumer mistrust, so it is essential for us to continue on the road towards restricted use and an even abolition of pesticides," says Tejle-EkbjÖrn.
However, Tejle-EkbjÖrn says that the SFU is not short of ideas. The farmer organization will be considering any program or policy that looks like it will assist farmers while protecting the environment. Whether it be optimal dosage reduction, banning the spraying of headlands to prevent leaching, mandatory sprayer inspection, restricting the filling and emptying of sprayers to non-biological locations or examining biological alternatives, all ideas will be examined regardless of how difficult they may seem to implement at the outset.
Tejle-EkbjÖrn is optimistic that the current 75% pesticide reduction is not the end of the road for Swedish farmers. She notes that even though three-quarters of Swedish farmers employ some kind of crop rotation, only half are using a 4-8 year plan; for the other half, she says, there is still room for improvement. And co-operation must continue to play a major role amongst the farm organizations, the government and chemical companies for the program to proceed, a point Tejle-EkbjÖrn underlines by noting that some agricultural chemical companies are now devoting over a third of their research budget to biological alternatives.
"The road that Swedish farmers have chosen can be followed in Canada too, one which will enable you to be more competitive in a changing world market where environmental concern and a "clean" agriculture will mean the difference between selling and keeping a prosperous countryside, and not selling with the implication of a down-graded rural area," Tejle-EkbjÖrn concluded
Pesticide application rates
Side bar (optional)
Sweden's Pest Reduction Program
Re-evaluation of 667 registered pesticides with half being removed by l 991, and the number of active ingredients reduced from 201 to 122.
New products have since brought total back up to 475 pesticides with 137 active ingredients. Aldrin, TCA, Bromacil, Maneb and Mancozeb have been banned for either being too toxic, mobile or persistent.
Over-application was commonplace due to best performance dosage rates based on number of surviving weeds rather than population densities that affected yield. Use reduction accomplished through:
- research into weed biology, crop rotation, improved application methods, etc.
- extension services for training and information
- sprayer calibration through mobile, on-farm technicians
- mandatory certification of farmers for pesticide use
Copyright © 1994 REAP Canada
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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