Protecting human health and ecosystems in Colombia

The use of agrochemicals has played a powerful role in feeding the world population since the green revolution of the 1960s. Yet the excessive use of pesticides and certain fertilizers is inflicting profound damage on ecosystems and human health, and undermining efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Members of the Food and Land Use Coalition in Colombia are working with local stakeholders to accelerate efforts to reduce harmful use of agrochemicals in the country, to provide safer food for local people and tap into new export opportunities. The Coalition launched a ‘Bio-inputs and Healthy Food’ working group in November 2018, which aims to support efficient management of agro-inputs in the country and to provide concrete alternatives and solutions for effective agricultural production.

Colombia has the highest consumption of fertilizer and the second highest consumption of pesticides per hectare in Latin America, spending a huge 35% percent of the cost of food production on agrochemical and fertilizer use.[1] According to the World Bank, its pesticide use has almost quadrupled in the last 20 years.[2] The country has positioned itself as a producer, consumer and exporter of agrochemicals, a business that represents USD 600 million per year[3].

There are troubling signs that these practices are affecting the health of Colombia’s people and land. Some of the agrochemicals used are classified as high risk to human health and food safety. Inadequate traceability and monitoring systems on the production side (on farms and in processing), and on the consumption side (for example, in retailers) mean that Colombians have no way of knowing what they are eating, where it came from, and the conditions in which that food was grown.

colombia+rural+2.jpg

Many factors contribute to the continued harmful use of agrochemicals in Colombia, including but not limited to farmer understanding of the impacts of agrochemicals on health and the environment, low levels of training and technology to increase the efficiency of agrochemicals or bio-inputs use, limited farmer education in disease management, and weak governance to prevent the sale of harmful or illegal agrochemicals.

Faced with these challenges, Colombia has worked to promote alternatives to socially and environmentally damaging agrochemical use and to offer cost-effective ways to increase productivity. Initiatives include more efficient and sustainable Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), the development of bio-inputs (i.e. inputs which are naturally derived), bio-protection solutions, integrated pest management (IPM) approaches, the use of traditional practices, and the promotion of agroecology and organic agriculture.

By integrating sustainable practices and using technology to ensure efficient and measured use of agro-inputs, Colombian farmers can tap into international markets with greater demands on global food safety standards, commitments to zero deforestation products, fulfilling Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) and growing consumer demand for responsibly sourced produce.

Colombia fruit.jpg
Colombia+Avocado.jpg

The FOLU ‘Bio-inputs and Healthy Food’ working group is led in partnership with research institution Agrosavia and Asobiocol, an association of bio-input production companies. It is run in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism, and Procolombia (Colombia’s export agency). Leading multi-national and bio-control companies also coordinate with the working group. This represents a key pillar of the FOLU Roadmap for a New Food and Land Use Economy in Colombia.

The working group is initially focused on two value chains – tomato and avocado hass – with a view to eventually scaling to others. Tomatoes are popular in Colombia but are known to suffer from excessive pesticide use (such as organophosphorus and organochlorine) in production, with implications for human health. Avocado hass is a key export product, with comparative and competitive advantages, but with increasing demands on quality and safety standards to be met.

Avocados Hanging from Tree,  J. Stephen Conn ; Tomato Crops,  Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Avocados Hanging from Tree, J. Stephen Conn; Tomato Crops, Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Key priorities for the working group include creating sustainable, scalable agricultural practices. There is significant potential in this respect. In an assessment that Biointropic is currently developing for the working group with the support of FOLU-Colombia, there is evidence of  a gap in the certification of farms with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP): just 1,692 farms are today certified in GAP, in a country with 2.7 million producers.[4] Of these, only 245 avocado farms and 21 tomato farms are certified.

Leveraging the power of companies who take sustainability seriously offers another important route to change. For example, fertilizer company Yara International provides extension services to farmers who employ sustainable practices, and bio-control company EcoFlora works with farmers in the use of bio-inputs. At the global and national levels there are increasing companies generating cutting-edge research into bio-inputs that boost productivity without affecting the environment or health. Finally, collaboration is key: the working group brings together public and private sector leaders to collectively deliver effective solutions for different value chains in the country.