Among environmentalists, there’s a common perception that farmers cut corners with environmental regulations.
When you look at the near endless list of rules farmers have to follow, it’s hard to imagine how they could comply with them all, all of the time.
When it comes to pesticides, there’s a particularly large burden of rules there. To even handle farm pesticides, you’re supposed to take a two-day training course.
This makes a lot of sense as pesticides are potent chemicals, specifically engineered to be toxic to something.
In fact, when pesticides are misused they can contaminate food chains, pollute rivers and even cause serious illness in humans.
So, if farmers aren’t following the rules on pesticide use, this could have some pretty disastrous consequences for biodiversity, as well as their own health.
We (a team of researchers at University College Dublin) set out to answer this question by surveying Irish farmers and simply asking them if they follow pesticide rules. The survey was anonymous to get the best results possible.
Approximately 50% of respondents to the survey were grassland farmers, while the other half were tillage farmers.
It may surprise some of you to hear that the majority of farmers reported that they follow the rules most of the time. When we scored farmers on how well they followed the legally required steps for pesticide applications, the average score was 81 out of 100. While it’s not a perfect 100, it’s a long way from a complete disregard for the rules.
As a pesticide scientist, I was very concerned as to whether farmers were spraying their pesticides at the right concentrations. This is because overly concentrated pesticide sprays can be very harmful to wildlife.
Fortunately, 96% of respondents spray the correct concentrations of pesticides.
Farmers also reported being very good at disposing of their leftover pesticides, ie not pouring them down the drain, which is something that worries river scientists, as waterway pollution is a serious threat to river species.
In fact, for most of the questions we asked, the majority of farmers were following the rules. So, the perception of the average farmer being a rule-breaker and doing whatever they like with pesticides is certainly a myth. That said though, we did see some areas where a sizable chunk of farmers were not following the rules properly.
Are farmers trained?
Prior to applying farm pesticides, there’s the mandatory two-day training course covering the basics of how to use the kit and how to stay safe.
We found that one in six farmers who use farm pesticides admitted to not having taken this course. This means they are spraying pesticides illegally.
Multiple farmers reported putting leftover pesticides into the slurry pit, which is not a safe way to dispose of it
While it is true that grassland farmers use less pesticides, it is still important to get the training before using any farm pesticides.
Bad for the environment
We also had the odd instance where one or two respondents admitted to some behaviours that could be really bad for the environment.
These included reports of dumping leftover pesticides in ways that would contaminate rivers, or even admitting to buying banned substances such as neonicotinoids.
Multiple farmers reported putting leftover pesticides into the slurry pit, which is not a safe way to dispose of it.
Awareness campaign needed
So, while the overall picture is that most farmers follow the rules most of the time, there is still some work to be done.
Notably, the Department of Agriculture, Teagasc and farming groups such as the IFA should redouble efforts to support and educate farmers about the importance of personal protective equipment and the need to undergo pesticide training.
Beyond training, another key tool to keep farmers safe is personal protective equipment, things like gloves, masks and overalls.
This is sadly the worst area for compliance with the rules, as around half the farmers in our survey are bad at wearing protective equipment while spraying.
This means they are potentially exposing themselves to dangerously high levels of pesticide.
Gloves, which are the easiest piece of protective equipment to source and wear were worn by most farmers, but still one in four “rarely” or “never” wear gloves while mixing and applying pesticides.
It’s worth briefly contextualising these results internationally, as the situation in the developing world is very different.
In China, South America, Africa and the Middle East, the scale of rule breaking in an order of magnitude greater than among Irish farmers.
There are very frequent reports of pesticide overapplication, dumping of pesticides into waterways and little to no protective equipment being worn.
There isn’t a comparable study to ours in a developed nation, so we can’t say if Irish farmers are any better or worse than other EU or American farmers, but we can say overall they’re pretty good.
Robust survey box
One common response while discussing this research is ‘how do you know the farmers were telling the truth?’.
While we can’t directly test this, there’s a wealth of scientific literature showing that if you give people anonymity and a non-judgemental questionnaire, they’ll be surprisingly honest.
Because we used an online survey our respondents knew they had total anonymity.
The best evidence for the honesty of our respondents comes from the number of farmers who admitted to breaking some form of rule. If our respondents were all lying through their teeth about not overapplying pesticides or breaking other serious rules, why would they admit to breaking the rules on wearing personal protective equipment?
To conclude, contrary to popular belief, farmers are good at following pesticide rules.
While there are a few rule-breakers among them, broadly, farmers are using pesticides properly. The results of this survey were published in the Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety earlier this year.
Read the results in full here.