Pest and Pesticide Management

Interview: FAO's Béatrice Grenier on the CoC and why we need it


The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management (CoC) is a key tool for policymakers around the world. We asked pesticide management expert Béatrice Grenier, a chemist by training with over two decades of experience, why this 12-article document is so important.

BG: The CoC provides a framework for pesticide management. It covers the full life cycle of pesticides, from manufacturing to disposal. It is the main reference document worldwide, and its standards of conduct are voluntary: no one is obligated to follow them. However, it establishes that the stakeholders made a commitment and have a moral obligation to comply with the agreed-upon standards of conduct.

The CoC gets reviewed on a regular basis at the FAO/WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Management (JMPM), which takes place once a year. This is where all the stakeholders get together and talk: experts from governments, the pesticide industry, civil society and NGOs, and of course FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The reason why WHO is involved is because while most pesticides are applied in agriculture, some are used to control disease vectors such as malaria mosquitos. Also, WHO has a leading role in guiding assessments of pesticide risks to human health. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which focuses on environmental impacts, is also associated with the JMPM. So we have agriculture, public health, and the environment represented.

The JMPM is also the venue to discuss aspects that are not yet in the CoC. One example is online pesticide sales. Basically you can go online and buy pesticides from anywhere in the world. Pesticide sellers are supposed to provide safety information on how to use them and what kind of protective gear to wear. But over the internet, there is no guarantee that appropriate information is being given.

Another example is biodiversity, which is now high on the international agenda and would need to be reflected in the CoC. So that's why it needs to be updated regularly, and the JMPM is where this can happen. We say the JMPM is the custodian of the CoC.

The CoC and the technical guidelines go hand in hand

We also develop sets of technical guidelines to go with the CoC. For example, this year we published new guidance on licensing: if you're a pesticide manufacturer or a retailer or if you're spraying pesticides by plane you need a license, because handling these products can be risky.

This new guidance is important because governments need it to put licensing schemes in place, and also to carry out inspections to make sure pesticides are being handled correctly. So a licensing scheme and the ability to put an effective inspection system in place go together.

We know the guidelines are being used extensively. However we want to find out how they are being understood and applied so that we can improve our communication. So we're working with Zimbabwe to test our guidelines on Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs). The project is being supported by the Swedish Chemicals Agency (KEMI), and we hope to extend this project to more countries.

Legislation without enforcement is "just a book on a shelf"

The CoC is useful for countries that may not have anything in place in terms of managing pesticides — not even legislation, which is the bare minimum you should have.

For example, FAO is assisting Lesotho on drafting its own pesticide laws. But that's just the beginning: you could have beautiful legislation but without implementation and enforcement it's just a book on a shelf. So legislation is the starting point, but the 12 articles of the CoC also talk about labelling, distribution, trade, advertising and so on.

So we keep supporting countries to make better assessments of pesticides before authorising them for the market, in particular using the FAO pesticide registration toolkit. In OECD countries this is a very thorough process, which can take months or even years. In some FAO countries it can take just a few days, because there may be only one person to make the assessment and issue the authorisation.

"I like to see the glass half full"

I am optimistic by nature. For example there are fewer hazardous products on the market now than when I started in this sector. In Europe over 25 years ago there were about 1 400 authorised substances — by which I mean, chemicals substances that can be mixed together to make pesticides. Nowadays there are "only" about 450 such substances. That's still too many in my opinion, but one third of them can be considered to be biological pesticides, which are far less dangerous than chemical ones. This is because the trend is away from synthetic products and towards nature-based solutions and mainstreaming biodiversity for sustainable agriculture. So for me that's part of the improvement.

However, in my opinion progress is too slow: too many farmers and their families are still getting poisoned, there are still too many suicides by pesticide, and global issues such as water, soil and air pollution remain. But I like to see the glass half full.