Pakistan cuts pesticide use dramatically
FAO-EU project shows way to higher profits, better health
Vehari, Pakistan – In the cotton-growing heart of the Indus Valley, Pakistani taxpayers are now financing what European Union taxpayers helped start – a movement to give farmers the skills and confidence to rein in indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides, while reducing their poverty at the same time.
"Before, we used to follow what the neighbours did in spraying pesticide," says small-scale cotton farmer Muhammad Younis, 27. "Last year, I used six to seven applications and this year, after observing my field, I used commercial pesticides only three times and biopesticides like neem and aloe vera twice. The crop looks as good as last year, and I've saved money on the pesticide."
Mr Younis learned field ecology in a Farmer Field School, a method pioneered by FAO and first introduced in Pakistan to train cotton farmers in Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The FAO-EU IPM Programme for Cotton in Asia, worth US$12.4 million, promoted this approach to pest management from 1999 to 2004 in Bangladesh, China, India, the Philippines and Viet Nam, as well as Pakistan.
Since 2004, Pakistan has committed US$7.7 million in public funds to integrate IPM into public policy, university curricula, provincial extension services and research and development. Projects at both national and provincial level are well on their way to using Farmer Field Schools to train 167 000 farmers in IPM over five years.
In Farmer Field Schools, farmers and facilitators spend one morning a week during the cropping season in a typical field, observing insect behaviour and plant growth rates. Put simply, farmers see that beneficial insects often devour pests, and when this is happening, pesticide is not needed. Farmers, even illiterate ones, gain confidence and begin relying on their own judgement, even in the face of often intense pressure from government agents and pesticide sellers to spray frequently and without reference to field ecology.
According to Dr Iftikar Ahmad, Head of the National IPM Programme, farmers now are using less pesticide: "Our national data show a dramatic decline in pesticide use in Pakistan. Farmers are making more profit and a government study shows a 10 percent increase in cotton production thanks to IPM."
Additional benefits included lower exposure to highly hazardous insecticides, especially for the women who pick most of the cotton by hand. The FAO-EU project supported local women physicians to monitor blood samples from women picking cotton; without IPM, their blood enzyme levels were dangerously reduced for more than a month after field work. With IPM, this did not occur.
Mr Younis tells a story that is all too common in rural Pakistan: "Two years ago my brother was applying pesticide when he fainted and fell and started vomiting. We took him to the doctor, who said it was pesticide poisoning and that he should no longer do the spraying. Up until today, he can't handle pesticides."
Making change stick
Agriculture in Pakistan is mainly a provincial responsibility. The FAO-EU project took care to include key provincial officials in workshops and field training. Today, many "graduates" of the project are advocates of IPM and of using Farmer Field Schools as the extension method of choice – both for passing on knowledge and for empowering farmers to feel confident about their crop management decisions.
"They convinced us it is a better approach," says Asif Khan, provincial director of a large IPM pilot project in the Punjab, Pakistan's agricultural heartland. "I predict IPM will be accepted in the whole Punjab. I am also confident Farmer Field Schools will become our new extension method, since many feel the old approach is no longer efficient."
His project is not without its problems. "We promised to give facilitators motorcycles and a better employment package, but so far nothing has been given. We also have a problem of release of funds by the treasury. We have not paid salaries for four months."
In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Michael Dale, the European Commission's Head of Operations in Pakistan, describes the comparative advantages that FAO and the EU brought to the IPM in cotton programme: "FAO is supported by its members, one of whom is Pakistan. So the Organization is loath to criticize a member country, but instead works behind the scenes. The EC is not paid by Pakistan, so I can be outspoken. For example, I was heavily critical of the pesticide industry for selling sub-standard pesticides."
"We like to tap FAO's experience," he says. "The EC only has nine people here and there is a limit to what we can do. We've been able to do tremendous work together. But in the end, a donor can only act as catalyst. If people can see it is good for them, they'll take it up."
22 February 2007
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