Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The steady rise of herbicides use

Modern technologies in crop production have not penetrated Malawi’s agriculture sector to any level near impressing their advocates, researchers admit.

Nevertheless, among those methods aimed at easing agriculture production while numbers of workers diminish, herbicides seem to be steadily winning the hearts of Malawian farmers, both smallholder and commercial.

These are essentially chemicals used to kill or inhibit the growth of weeds and other unwanted plants in a field.

The last decade has seen an increase in farmers’ use of the chemicals and according to a plant pathologist at Bvumbwe Research Station, Misheck Soko, the response continues being overwhelming.

“Herbicides are particularly used in hot areas like Salima and Chikwawa because soils are very fertile and a lot of weeds grow there. As such, manual methods of weeding are too involving and farmers prefer the use of chemicals,” says Soko who is also acting registrar of the Pesticides Control Board.

A 2016 study by the Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy (ILFSP) on the use of herbicides in Sub-Saharan Africa found that even though chemical weed control has been low or non-existent in Africa for many years, recent evidence suggests that herbicide use is now reaching significant levels “and may be on the rise more generally”.

According to the study, Malawi’s use of herbicides remains low—at 1 per cent—while other countries like Ghana have jumped to 55 per cent in just a few years.

“…These results suggest that increased use of herbicides is driven by increased awareness, availability, and demand by better off, commercially oriented households. This often happens in areas where agricultural productivity is rising and where the opportunity cost of labour may be higher,” the survey observed.

And Soko admits that while herbicides use is gaining momentum in the country, the cost of the chemicals constrains smallholder farmers from maximising their potential.

On the other hand, the plant pathology expert states that for those farmers that use them, the efficiency of the chemicals is there for all to see.

“The herbicides are very effective if properly utilised just like is any other chemical. For the smallholder farmers, sometimes it is difficult to afford the chemicals because they are a bit expensive.

“But for the commercial farmers, almost all of them are using herbicides and this obviously shows that the chemicals are effective. Commercial farmers react very quickly to something if it is not helping them,” says Soko.

He adds that due to the increasing demand of herbicides in the country, most chemical companies are now into their business with agro-dealers also cashing in on the new technology which is easing manual labour in crop production.

But Bizeck Chitseko, a smallholder farmer of Mwamadi Village in Mulanje, who belongs to a farmers’ club under One Acre Fund, says he has never used herbicides because of lack of proper advisory services from experts.

He, however, admits that he has seen other farmers use the chemicals but finds that gap that he has in understanding their potential a deterrent of the good tidings that could be synonymous with herbicides.

“Perhaps, if I get more information on how to use these chemicals and their effects, I may decide to start using them. Otherwise, currently I don’t think I can use them. Crop production is sensitive and you cannot take unnecessary risks,” says Chitseko.

Elena Kankhumba, a Nkhotakota-based registered member of the Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM) says she uses herbicides and that they have been effective in her agriculture endeavours.

Kankhumba says her farms are often so infested with weeds such that dealing with them using a hoe is practically impossible “because they will sprout any time soon”. This is, of course, the case in many hot areas of Malawi.

“But the use of herbicides also has its problems. For instance, sometimes after applying them, I find that weeds grow again even before harvesting my crops. Because it is also difficult to protect ourselves from the chemicals, we sometimes develop skin rashes,” says Kankhumba.

Perhaps, she is also not fully benefiting from the herbicides because of lack of proper advisory services just like Chitseko.

In fact the ILSFP study recommended that policies to prepare for the changes in herbicide use should include training farmers on their safe and effective application.

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