Manager, Clean Agriculture, Department of Food and Agriculture, Leongatha. Vic. 3953
Consumers, as they become more discerning about food choices in the face of a wide range of available products, look for more than price and availability. Aspects such as freshness, quality and the way food is produced also gain importance. There is a growing demand amongst consumers, here and overseas, for food that is produced responsibly, with minimal chemical inputs.
Victoria has been quick to recognise the potential of its good reputation as a reliable supplier of quality, clean food and has developed the "Clean Agriculture Program" to improve and assert this reputation.
The Clean Agriculture Program
The Clean Agriculture Program aims to meet consumers' demands for food produced responsibly with minimal chemical inputs. It is based on monitoring produce for chemical residues, developing ways of minimising chemical use and promoting safe and responsible use.
While the use of farm chemicals is an integral part of sustainable farm practices, they must be used in such a way that unacceptable residues in produce and the environment are avoided.
Victoria's produce already meets the very high standards, imposed nationally and internationally, for pesticides and monitored through the National Residue Survey and our own produce monitoring. Less than one percent of samples exceed established levels and this percentage has decreased over the last few years.
The Department of Food and Agriculture's Clean Agriculture Program draws together a wide range of projects which focus on minimising chemical usage, while at the same time promoting correct use and disposal of agricultural chemicals. The program is based on monitoring produce for chemical residues to identify any areas of concern.
Chemicals have traditionally been used to maintain product quality and improve productivity in agriculture, especially in regard to pest control. Weeds, pests and diseases have a significant impact on the productivity and economics of agriculture and farm chemicals are an important tool in reducing these impacts. However there are advantages of minimising chemical usage not only related to pests developing resistance to pesticides and the high cost of chemicals, but also to ensure that consumers receive clean products (and the related marketing advantages this gives a product) and to avoid the destruction of desirable species of insects, microorganisms, plants and animals and other off-site effects.
The Clean Agriculture Program has the following four elements:
• minimising chemical use
• promoting responsible use and disposal
• produce monitoring
• promoting the concept of clean food as a marketing advantage for Victoria (and Australia)
(i) Minimising Chemical Use
There are many good reasons to minimise chemical usage, including:
• avoiding the development of resistance in pests
• reducing the costs of production
• avoiding the cost of desirable species of microorganisms, insects, plants and animals
• eliminating risks to people who apply chemicals and to the environment
• ensuring clean produce for consumers
• providing marketing advantages for clean produce
The Department of Food and Agriculture is working on ways of reducing the need for chemical use by researching Integrated Pest Management, biological control and non-chemical control techniques. Integated Pest Management is a major focus.
In practical terms, Integrated Pest Management is really commonsense pest control and involves the use of a number of control techniques, these techniques may include cultural methods of control, the use of resistant cultivars, encouragement of natural enemies and targeted use of chemicals. IPM is not a revolutionary new control procedure; it is an approach to control.
One of the keys to IPM is the acceptance that there will be a pest density below which damage is tolerable. Above that level, intervention will be needed to prevent a pest outbreak and to avert significant loss.
(ii) Promoting Responsible Use
Those who use agricultural chemicals are being educated to use them safely and effectively. In addition, the Clean Agriculture Program provides a range of activities to encourage the correct use of chemicals.
These activities include:
• reminding users to read labels and follow safe practices;
• ensuring users are aware of the personal and environmental dangers of misuse;
• making farmers aware of how residue violations occur and what the penalties are;
• informing the community of the role of chemicals in agriculture and of Government safeguards covering their use;
• developing safer, more effective application methods when chemicals are needed;
• assisting farmers to adopt techniques which minimise chemical use.
(iii) Produce Monitoring
Random samples of agricultural produce are collected and submitted to laboratories for analysis of the various chemicals. These samples can be traced to a farm of origin. This State-initiated program complements ongoing national programs. Where residues are detected at or above permissible levels, visits are made to properties to investigate the source and cause of the residues. Further samples are collected from the property for analysis to seek resolution of any problem.
This comprehensive program aims to detect problems before produce reaches the market. In this way, Victorian produce maintains its high reputation with consumers and our vital international trade is protected.
(iv) Clean Food Promotion
In 1989 we spoke to consumers to look at the way they viewed the issues related to clean food. It was apparent from this that food purity was an important issue to consumers and they were interested in information to help them make informed decisions on the issue. One interesting observation was that people were not aware of the safeguards that are in place with respect to things like food safety and chemical residues and when these are explained to them the level of concern about these issues falls.
There is a whole range of activities related to ensuring the integrity of our food supply, from registration and regulation to industry accreditation and training and research and development of new methods. Promotion of this work and development of networks amongst the people involved has been a high priority. For example, the results of the Victorian Produce Monitoring are released with as much publicity as can be obtained each year.
(i) Minimising Chemical Use
(a) IPM and Biological Control
Tactics for control in insect pests in potatoes have shifted from reliance on insecticides (including the persistent organochlorines) to the increased use of biological and cultural methods. We have developed a strategy based on biological control which, when adopted widely, could reduce, if not replace, insecticide use for potato crops in Victoria.
Strawberry growers have been provided with an improved strategy for the control of pests of strawberries, involving improved sampling methods and integrated biological chemical and cultural control methods.
Biocontrol agents have been isolated which can control some of the important storage rots in apples and pears. Detailed studies are underway with the aim of commercialising the use of several of these organisms. Work has progressed to the point that an application to patent these organisms is underway.
Four key pathogens (in the environment and on fruit) responsible for infection at eight steps of fruit handling of fresh peaches have been identified. The fungicidal effectiveness of 55 selected naturally produced chemicals has been assessed. Field application of the effective chemicals in commercial fruit-handling facilities has been satisfactorily simulated.
Successful methods have been developed for the mass rearing of exotic parasitoids for release against the primary caterpillar pests of Victorian crops.
Through implementation of integrated pest management, Sunraysia grape and citrus growers have experienced improved returns estimated at between $0.4-3.6 million per annum, depending on seasonal incidence of pests and diseases.
Horticulture Hotline and Cropwatch Newsletter, two new, commercially viable systems of information transfer, have been established in the Sunraysia. These are unique examples of how to implement IPM systems, both having been extremely well received by the grape and citrus industries.
With the notable exception of codling moth, viable IPM schemes are now available for most pests in apple and pear orchards and for pests of peaches and apricots. IPM is being actively promoted and growers assisted with implementation.
Significant progress has been made towards developing IPM for caterpillar pests of crucifers. Action thresholds for insecticide application or treatment with alternative products have been identified and developed. These are based on counts of total larval numbers per plant. Other methods using egg counts, feeding damage or large larvae only were not adequate. Two larval and one pupal parasitoid of cabbage white butterfly have been identified.
(b) Minimal Chemical Use
A new method of growing vegetables in a minimal tillage situation with plant nutrients supplied once every three to four crops has been evaluated over two years. A method for large scale production of compost with combinations of organic by-products has also been developed.
Bacillus thuringensis (biological control), and a physical barrier (lightweight netting) were shown to control caterpillar pests of crucifers as well as a regular chemical spray. Other products - pyrethrum, garlic and insecticidal soap - did not give adequate control. It was demonstrated that the reputed insect repelling plants rosemary, thyme, celery, tomato and dill did not repel the pest Lepidoptera in crucifer trials.
(c) Organic Farming
Victoria has participated actively in the development of an Australian export standard for organic production. In addition, the development of Organic Trading Standards has led to better consumer protection when purchasing organically grown food.
The feasibility of organic farming and a more sustainable approach to vegetable production has been evaluated and has provided greater scientific understanding of soil ecology and biological systems which is important in reducing chemical use in agriculture. A comparison of conventional and biodynamic dairy farming is underway.
Interested people have been assisted with advice on new product development and an enhancement of export opportunities. A range of information on organic production has been produced.
(ii) Responsible Use
The Victorian Farm Chemical Users course was developed. Over 1000 people have now undertaken this course. A series of simple brochures on calibration, avoiding spray drift, chemical disposal and chemical safety was produced and widely distributed.
The Rural Chemical Collection has collected unwanted chemicals from over the State for proper disposal. It is intended that this collection will be completed over the next year.
Three annual weeks of concentrated activities, events and press raised awareness of how to use chemicals responsibly and safely. In addition this awareness was built on through specifically designed educational activities and resources in an ongoing media and community awareness campaign.
The 1989 and 1990 campaigns promoted the themes of safe chemical use. The issue of chemical safety was promoted in four ways, which included personal safety, safety to the crop or animal to which the chemical is applied, safety to the environment and safety to the consumer. Farmers were urged to use chemicals safely with regard to all four areas.
The 1991 campaign promoted the theme of Clean Agriculture. Farmers were told they needed to respond to growing consumer concerns about chemicals in food by continuing to safely use chemicals and also to consider non-chemical alternatives where possible. To consumers, the campaign promoted the fact that our food is not only clean and plentiful but is also safe and healthy.
School resource and activity materials have been produced to educate the next generation of chemical users in safe responsible practices.
A follow up to an earlier survey showed that there had been a marked increase in the use of label directions to gain information on chemical use.
(iii) Produce Monitoring
Three year's of residue testing have shown that, on average, over 99% of samples of fruit, vegetables and grains meet established standards for agricultural chemical residues. In 1990/91 there was only one violation of the standard and this was from a sample from interstate.
Meat, milk, eggs and stockfeed have also been tested for residues of chemicals and stock medicines with similar good results.
Testing has also been conducted for the heavy metal cadmium, a naturally occurring element which can come from a number of sources. Cadmium levels higher than the maximum permissible concentration have been found in a range of produce and further investigations have been launched to determine the source of the problem.
(iv) Clean Food Promotion
Evaluation of the information and awareness activities has shown that there is an increased understanding of the place of farm chemicals in sustainable production systems and more satisfaction with the purity of fresh foods. More people now agree that Victoria has some of the best quality, pure food in the world.
In our work we have identified that there is a need to integrate the activities of all those groups which are working towards promoting responsible, minimal chemical use. Initial links have been made to this end.
Future Directions for Clean Agriculture
Current projects in clean agriculture involve research, development and education on Integrated Pest Management for major fruit and vegetable crops, development of new technology to reduce chemical use through better application, providing an information service on registration, residue limits and controls on agricultural chemical use and assessing the economics of measures to reduce chemical use.
There are quite a number of exciting developments in Clean Agriculture. The National Farmers' Federation has developed a National Farm Chemical Users Training Program to provide a nationally accredited training scheme to farmers and others in the safe, responsible and appropriate use of farm chemicals. This training is a logical extension of the industry accreditation scheme for chemical retailers.
A National Clean Agriculture Network has been formed to link the efforts of all those working in clean agriculture. Producers, food processors and retailers are all becoming aware of the potential that our natural advantages of freedom from radioactive and chemical pollution, long growing seasons, abundant land and low input production systems give us in international food markets. The recent statement from the Federal Government also identifies this competitive advantage.
What is needed, however, is a way that this potential can be turned into an effective marketing system, driven by a commitment to total quality management and clean agriculture. I believe that this commitment will be forthcoming if producers, processors and retailers are recognised for the job that they do.