Q&A on Pests and Pesticide Management

A Ministry of Agriculture staff member sprays pesticides on crops in Geerisa, Salal Region, Somalia.

©Photo: ©FAO/Isak Amin


Last updated: 12 May 2021

What are pesticides? 

Pesticides are any substance or mixture of substances of chemical or biological ingredients intended for repelling, destroying or controlling any pest, or for regulating plant growth. The term pesticide applies to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, molluscicides, wood preservatives and various other substances used to control pests. Pesticides also include plant growth regulators, defoliants and desiccants.

The use of pesticides in agriculture goes back thousands of years, however, pesticides began to be applied more broadly from the 1940s due to the growth of synthetic chemical pesticides and rapid development of biopesticides in the past decade. Today, there are more than one thousand pesticides available on the market (including chemical, microbial, semi-chemical and botanical pesticides).

Is there a place for pesticides in sustainable agriculture?  

FAO's vision for sustainable food and agriculture is that food should be safe, nutritious and accessible to everyone and that natural resources should be managed in a way that maintains ecosystem functions to support current and future human needs. It is a fine balance.

FAO estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are lost each year due to the damage caused by plant pests. Crop losses are something we can ill afford as food insecurity continues to grow with increasing population numbers and in the face of climate challenges. Global food production needs to increase by up to 50 percent by 2050 if we are to feed our growing population. Controlling pests is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 2 to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030. 

FAO promotes Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for sustainable crop protection. IPM brings together various ecosystem-based strategies and all available pest control techniques and practices that discourage the development of pest populations and recommend judicious use of pesticides only as a last resort when there are no adequate non-chemical alternatives and applied appropriately to reduce risks to human health and the environment.

What role does FAO play in pesticide management? 

FAO addresses pesticide management in a holistic manner, by considering all the regulatory and technical measures required in the life cyle of pesticides to ensure their safety and efficacy, with no adverse effects on health and the environment, including humans, animals, plants and ecosystems. The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management developed by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO), outlines that approach. It covers all the stages of pesticide development - including the manufacture, formulation, registration, packaging, distribution, storage, transport, use and final disposal of a pesticide product and/or its container.

FAO is working in the context of the Code of Conduct and provides techncial, policy and strategic advice to countries aimed at reducing the risks associated with pesticide use through their lifecycle. As part of its work in this area, FAO has developed 46 technical guidelines and a pesticide registration toolkit to help member countries conduct science-based risk assessment and registration. FAO supports the development of national capacity for pesticide management and promotes regional collaboration. 

How does integrated pest management work?

IPM emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms. It blends traditional or local knowledge with modern technology and limits the use of pesticides, while recognizing  that there are situations in which pesticides are needed as a last resort when there are no adequate alternatives. When pesticides are deemed necessary, careful selection and adherence to guidelines in pesticide management are critical to reduce human and environmental health risks.  Biopesticides, derived from nature and considered more environmentally friendly, are an important part of IPM and help reduce the use of chemical pesticides.

FAO IPM programmes have demonstrated that it is possible to significantly reduce pesticide use without reducing crop yield or farmers' profits, even in areas with increased pest pressure. So far, about 10 million farmers have been trained on IPM procedures through FAO and regional Farmer Field School programmes in more than 95 countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and Eastern Europe.

How is FAO working on the ground to reduce pesticide use and risks?  

FAO supports the reduction of pesticide use and risks by supporting governments in regulating the kind of pesticides that farmers can access, and by strengthening inspection and control systems as well as regulatory frameworks to assess, ban or discourage the use of the most toxic pesticides.

FAO also works directly with farmers through Farmer Field Schools in more than 100 countries to develop  their capacity in integrated pest and pesticide management, improve their food security and livelihoods and to raise awareness about risks of chemical pesticides, as well as of effective and low risk alternatives such as biopesticides.

What is FAO's role at global level?

FAO leads the UN's work on pesticides and provides the international framework for managing pesticides and supporting countries so they can apply policies, technologies and best practices at the national and regional level. FAO and its partners have developed key policy instruments that guide countries by enabling the right legislative and regulatory environment for managing pesticides and their risks. Such instruments can be voluntary like technical guidelines, tools, or a Code of Conduct, or legally binding like the Rotterdam Convention which came into effect in 2004.

FAO has also worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) on more than 5 000 Codex Alimentarius standards for maximum residue limits in food and more than 3 000 for pesticide quality standards. Evaluations conducted by scientific advisory bodies - FAO/WHO Joint meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and FAO/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Specifications (JMPS) - help set international standards that assist countries in risk assessment and mitigation of pesticides.

Eliminating risks of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) has been a priority in international  chemicals management. FAO is now developing a Global Action Plan on HHPs with WHO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) that will aim to significantly reduce risks associated with HHPs before 2030.

Who are FAO's partners in tackling pests and pesticide management? 

FAO works with all relevant stakeholders to tackle the challenges of pest and pesticide management. Key partners include international organizations, regional organizations,  government agencies, universities and research institutions, NGOs and the private sector. FAO is working with all its partners to develop technical guidelines and tackle global emergency issues regarding pesticide management.

Along with other international organizations, FAO leads efforts on agrochemical management issues, with a focus on addressing HHPs through the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) framework.

What is the role of the private sector?

FAO considers that engaging the private sector can help bring about innovative and effective ways to tackle some of the challenges facing sustainable agriculture. FAO currently has more than 30 ongoing formal partnership agreements with private sector entities.

Examples of such collaboration between FAO and private sector organizations in pest and pesticide management include:

Private sector engagement and investment in pest and pesticide management research and innovation. With the recent outbreak of Fall Armyworm (FAW), private companies have developed many innovative biological and physical control technologies and products, including biopesticides, natural enemies, and trapping equipment. These solutions play an important role in the monitoring and sustainable management of this devastating pest, which poses a threat to food security in Africa, Asia and the Near East.

Private sector engagement in helping to facilitate development and use of innovative smart technologies. In cooperation with the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, FAO developed a mobile-based FAW Monitoring and Early Warning System. It enables FAO to monitor on-site occurrence of FAW and provide technical advice in a timely manner to member countries and farmers.

Private sector partnership is responding to the Desert Locust upsurge in East Africa.

FAO has partnered with the private sector to scale up the monitoring and reporting of Desert Locust infestations. These improvements have played a crucial role in protecting the food security and livelihoods of millions of people.

Through private sector engagement, FAO can access data, innovations, practices and technologies and help to share information and knowledge between all stakeholders to increase positive actions and accelerate change.

In all engagements with the private sector, FAO is fully transparent. This means providing all stakeholders, including the public, with information on the volume of private sector engagement, the names of entities with which the UN agency is engaged, and the nature of the activities covered by any engagement. FAO also ensures that all engagement with the private sector is in line with and contributes to FAO's mandate, operations and objectives. Transparency is essential for ensuring that both the neutrality and integrity of the Organization are maintained and safeguarded.


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