Food safety and sustainable agriculture through integrated analytical approaches for pesticide management

The pressure to produce enough food for the world’s ever-growing population has had a worldwide impact on agricultural practices. The use of pesticides has steadily increased over recent years to improve crop yields and in response to changing patterns of transboundary insect and fungal infestations driven by climate change. New active ingredients have also been developed and other chemicals are sometimes used inappropriately in agriculture. Flexible, targeted and cost-effective agricultural management systems are required to avoid potential food crises and emergencies caused both by plant pests and by the high levels of agrochemical inputs needed to control them, and to ensure the continuous production of safe food and the sustainability of the environment in which we live.

To facilitate the implementation and continuous improvement of such systems and respond to changing social, economic and environmental conditions, laboratory and field analytical services are vital to provide data and feedback on food safety and environmental impact. Working with counterpart institutes in more than 30 countries, the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has developed an innovative, resource-effective, integrated analytical approach for pesticide management to help meet these challenges.

It was recognized that there was a need to provide objective indicators for pesticide management by strategic monitoring of agricultural practices in order to cost-effectively reduce the occurrence of harmful residues in food crops. Focusing on implementing risk assessment approaches to reduce reliance on expensive pesticide residue testing, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture initiated catchment-scale studies in several countries world-wide on integrated (one health) monitoring systems. Key to the approach was the monitoring of surface-water quality as an indicator of the effectiveness of pesticide management practices, in combination with pesticide monitoring in food.

The strategy combines monitoring and modelling approaches, using analytical chemistry and biomonitoring methodologies to target high-impact rating pesticides in food, surface water and sediments in previously characterized catchments. This integrated multi-disciplinary approach enables upstream, preventative control of pesticide residues in food and allows assessment of the impact of pesticide management practices in developing countries where pesticide regulations may not exist or lack enforcement, facilitating management actions and improvement of agricultural practices.

Since food contamination does not recognize country boundaries, regional coordination and cooperation among Member States, as well as relevant stakeholders – including decision makers- was regarded as an efficient and sustainable mechanism to foster safety and sustainability in food production. A such, regional food safety laboratory networks were put in place to share data and experiences and enable optimisation of the methodology for each individual participating institution. For instance, with the support of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, a food safety laboratory network was established in the Latin America and the Caribbean region: the Red Analytica de Latino América y el Caribe (RALACA). This regional approach was strengthened by important scientific and technical contribution from institutes in Bulgaria, China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka.

The approaches developed under the initiative were published in 2018 in the book, “Integrated analytical approaches for pesticide management”. This collates inputs from 26 institutes in 12 countries as well as from the FAO/IAEA Joint Division to provide generic guidelines on pesticide analysis and environmental monitoring. The analytical testing methodologies are summarized in a manual, “Analytical methods for agricultural contaminants”, comprising standard operating procedures for 30 analytical methods from 17 institutes in 7 countries and the FAO/IAEA Food and Environmental Protection Laboratory.

Some of the main results of this work in Member States are:

  • Early warning systems for pesticide management practices that may result in food safety and environmental incidents are in place in selected catchments in Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Panama;
  • Analytical testing capabilities were improved, and laboratory accreditation was achieved in food safety laboratories in 10 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Uruguay);
  • Risk maps have been developed for potentially harmful pesticides in the food chain in 9 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Uruguay);
  • The integrated analytical approach was applied to support the control of pesticide residues and sustainable production of apples (Argentina), oranges and bananas (Brazil), grapes (Chile), rice and sugar (Costa Rica), and broccoli & palm oil (Ecuador);
  • Pesticide application practices have been improved in Ecuador and Costa Rica;
  • Exports of food commodities were increased in Ecuador & Chile due to better compliance with social and trade standards;
  • The methodology developed contributed to updating the regulatory framework for water quality in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Panama;
  • RALACA now contributes to food safety and environmental sustainability in the Latin American region and is now an independent network comprising 56 institutions in 21 countries; and
  • Six countries successfully participated in proficiency testing for emerging contaminants in food and agriculture, including nicotine, diclofenac, ibuprofen and paracetamol (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay).
  • Future work in this field will include identifying gaps and gathering information to further develop regional early warning and crisis management capabilities, including risk communication.