Pesticides in fruit growing: Sprayed and “close to nature”?


Status: 01/25/2023 05:00 a.m

A debate about pesticides has been raging in South Tyrol for years. The dispute escalated in 2017 when fruit growers reported German environmentalists for defamation. A data analysis shows how much was actually sprayed.

By Eva Achinger and Marco Lehner, BR

The probability of finding apples from South Tyrol on the supermarket shelf is high: every tenth apple in the EU comes from the northern Italian province. The majority of the South Tyrolean harvest is exported to Germany. data journalists Bavarian Radio and the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” have now got an insight into the spraying diaries of Vinschgau apple farmers for the first time. Normally these are not visible to the public. Only selected inspection bodies check the booklets in which each individual spray application is recorded. And in great detail: which pesticide is applied, how much of it and for what reason – farmers have to record all this information.

2017 in Vinschgau: 590,000 spraying jobs

BR data journalists have now evaluated 681 of these orchard logs from 2017. It’s about companies from the Vinschgau region, which cultivate about half of the area under cultivation there. The results are therefore not representative for the whole of South Tyrol. A total of 590,000 pesticide applications are documented in just one season. The analysis also shows that not a single day went by between March and September without spraying in Vinschgau. The farmers did not exceed the permitted maximum quantities. According to orchard records, an average apple orchard was treated with pesticides 38 times in 2017.

“Of course, 38 applications of pesticides in one season is a lot,” says Ralf Schulz, environmental scientist at the Rhineland-Palatinate Technical University of Kaiserslautern-Landau. Among other things, he researches how pesticides affect our ecosystem. The South Tyrolean apple consortium, the umbrella organization of all producer cooperatives, explains the high number of applications BR-Inquiry like this: “Unlike a few decades ago, we only use targeted agents with a lower level of effectiveness.” This requires a higher number of uses, but has the advantage of a precise effect on the harmful organism, it is said. The active ingredients in pesticides are the most toxic substances used in agriculture, says environmental scientist Schulz. “And accordingly, it is important to be clear about the quantities of pesticides used in agriculture,” says Schulz.

Ordinance logs become public because of the “pesticide process”.

The transparency of which chemicals are used is important, but not a matter of course. The fact that the data became accessible to the general public is the result of a one-off event in 2017. The Munich Environmental Institute, an environmental protection organization, started a campaign at the time to draw attention to the intensive use of pesticides in fruit growing. Among other things, the organization hangs a poster with the words “Pesticide Tyrol” in a busy public square in Munich.

As a result, around 1,400 fruit growers and the State Council for Agriculture sued the environmental activists for defamation. In the course of the South Tyrolean “pesticide trial”, the Bolzano public prosecutor’s office confiscated the farmers’ spraying booklets and handed them over to the Munich Environmental Institute. The data evaluation also shows that in 2017 active ingredients were used in Vinschgau that are no longer allowed to be used today. For example, the insecticide imidacloprid is no longer approved in Europe. The reason for this is that the active ingredient has proven to be very dangerous for bees.

These orchard logs reveal further details about the use of pesticides in apple cultivation. For example, farmers in Vinschgau sprayed up to nine different agents in just one day. “The combination of the means can lead to so-called cocktail effects,” says Vera Baumert, who works as a consultant for agriculture at the Munich Environmental Institute. These effects could lead to the negative effects on the environment and health adding up and increasing, explains the environmentalist. Experts consider cocktail effects to be insufficiently researched. German authorities have only taken them into account to a certain extent when approving active substances since 2017.

“100 percent of South Tyrolean apples within the legal framework”

Before a pesticide can be used, the active ingredient in it must be approved. Its effects on humans and the environment are therefore examined in numerous studies. If the active ingredient is finally approved by the authorities, maximum residue levels that are considered harmless to humans and the environment will be set by law. According to the South Tyrolean apple consortium, 100 percent of South Tyrolean apples are within the legal framework. It is said that the statutory maximum residue levels would be significantly undercut.

The majority of South Tyrolean apple farmers practice “integrated” cultivation. This cultivation method is “sustainable” and “close to nature”, writes the South Tyrolean working group for integrated fruit cultivation on request. The same is on several websites that advertise South Tyrol’s apple industry.

However, this marketing contradicts what the 2017 numbers say. According to Schulz, this cultivation method is more “sustainable” from an economic point of view, not from an ecological point of view. And the terms “near-natural” and “chemical-synthetic pesticides” are hardly compatible, says the environmental scientist. After all, these are chemicals that do not exist in the environment.

Pesticides as a last resort?

The Venosta Valley Association for Fruit and Vegetable Producers defends the spraying operations. Farmers only use pesticides when it is necessary and damage to fruit or trees is to be expected. “As little as possible is the motto of the South Tyrolean fruit growers,” they say.

For the first time, the data set gave an impression of how much and what was sprayed in the South Tyrolean Vinschgau. For fruit-growing areas in Germany are the BR no comparable figures. But pesticides are also often used here. A new EU regulation is intended to ensure more transparency. From 2028, data on the use of pesticides should be collected by the Member States, reported to the EU and published.

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