Australian growers defend pesticide use

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 23rd March 2010

Following a report on Australia’s 60 Minutes, peak horticulture organization Growcom and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) yesterday released statements declaring that fresh produce grown in Australia is safe to eat.

The 60 Minutes report, aired last Thursday, focused on the use of two chemicals, endosulfan (a pesticide) and carbendazim (a fungicide), which were implicated early last year in fish deformities found at the Sunland Fish Hatchery and in the wider Noosa River area.  In addition to the Sunland case, the 60 Minutes report investigated the wider use of the two suspect chemicals in Australian agriculture.

According to Growcom, “There has been a significant investment by industry to limit offsite impacts from farming. Last year there was a review of all crop protection chemicals used in the macadamia industry and there has already been a significant increase in the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and non chemical controls over the past five years.”

The meaning of this statement is unclear in relation to Endosulfan, which the APVMA describes as “now typically used as an occasional tool in integrated pest management (IPM) regimes.”

The Queensland Government established the Noosa Fish Health Investigation Taskforce early last year to investigate the claims of agricultural contamination at Sunland.  A new interim report by the Taskforce has revealed little.  While only a small number of samples at Sunland and Noosa River tested positive to any contaminants, the Taskforce has been hampered by scientific difficulties.

“The investigation has been complex and difficult due partly to the inability to obtain definitive test results, the lack of definitive scientific evidence regarding cause-effect relationships, the continued emergence of new issues and the differing opinions of members of the Taskforce and Scientific sub-Committee,” states the report.

Further monitoring equipment has been installed, and the Taskforce is expected to deliver its final report, in April.

APVMA Public Affairs Manager, Dr Simon Cubit, hit back at 60 Minutes‘ assertions that the two chemicals are dangerous for consumers.

“Australian fruit and vegetables are among the safest in the world to eat. Agricultural chemicals will only be registered in Australia if the residue levels they produce on fruit and vegetables are below scientifically assessed health standards,” he said in a media release.

“Australia has an extensive residue testing system involving local, state and Commonwealth regulators. This system is supplemented by wide ranging testing undertaken by commodity groups and supermarket chains. Of the tens of thousands of tests done annually, there are very few cases where residues are found.”

Both chemicals are Schedule 7 restricted, with use only by ‘suitably trained and competent people’.  Each product containing the substance is accompanied by extensive labelling, around 40 pages per product, detailing the usage conditions and prohibitions of the chemicals.  Dr Cubit asserts that “there is greater than 99% compliance with standards.”

The APVMA describes Endosulfan as a “tightly controlled and little-used chemical that is subject to ongoing scrutiny”.  In addition to being highly toxic, Endosulfan is proposed for listing in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; it is a durable pollutant, builds up in tissues cumulatively, and has the capability to travel long distances in the atmosphere.  Endosulfan products make up around $2 million of the $239 million dollar Australian insecticide market.

Carbendazim has recently been linked to birth defects and infertility. In January, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) ‘effectively discontinued’ Carbendazim usage on grapes, cucurbits and melons, citrus fruit, custard apple, mango, pome fruit, stone fruit and turf, and upgraded from a Schedule 6 to a Schedule 7 substance.  Carbendazim makes up just over 1% of the Australian fungicide market.