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Agricultural production is closely linked to the use of pesticides. In addition to pesticide residues in food and in groundwater, their use also has consequences for biological diversity. But what alternatives do manufacturers have and how do they ensure the safety of their products?

Around 2,000 tons of pesticides are used in Swiss agriculture every year to prevent crop failures caused by pests or diseases. It has long been known that the use of pesticides and the like is not only associated with risks in Switzerland. Pesticide residues are repeatedly found in groundwater or in food samples. Within the European Union, the use of pesticides is to be reduced by 50 percent by 2030. Switzerland established the pesticide action plan in 2017. Pesticide risks are to be halved and alternatives to chemical agents are to be promoted. In addition to the requirements of politicians and authorities, most of the responsibility lies with the agricultural producers themselves. Through responsible handling, openness to sustainable plant protection methods and careful analysis, they make a significant contribution to reducing the risk of pesticides in the long term.

Pesticides in Switzerland: Residues in groundwater and on food

Large quantities of pesticides are used in agriculture worldwide. In Europe alone it was almost 500,000 tons in 2020. The sale of pesticides in Switzerland fell between 2011 and 2019. – However, large quantities of pesticides are still used to control pests. The most commonly applied agents include fungicides, insecticides and the herbicide glyphosate. The chemicals are used in agriculture to control fungal diseases, pests and weeds.

Pesticide residues are repeatedly found in food samples. Fruit and vegetables are particularly affected, as are grain products. Residues of pesticides or their breakdown products, the metabolites, are also found in Swiss groundwater every year. The intensively farmed Mittelland is particularly affected. The problem: There are no defined maximum values for metabolites – although they are significantly more mobile and long-lasting than the actual active ingredients in the pesticides. Among other things, the active ingredient atrazine was detected in samples – a herbicide that has not been approved since 2007.

The impact of pesticides on humans and the environment

Regular consumption of foods with pesticide residues can pose potential health risks. Some pesticides have been linked to the development of cancer, hormonal imbalances, neurological disorders, and other health problems. Children are particularly at risk because their organism can react even more sensitively to harmful substances.

The environment and biodiversity also suffer from the use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Since 1920, Switzerland has lost around 60 percent of its biodiversity in the fields. In addition, the use of pesticides in Swiss agriculture also affects soil fertility. Studies have shown that pesticides can also have a negative impact on soil organisms. But they are largely responsible for the natural nutrient cycle and soil quality. In the long term, this can lead to reduced soil fertility and thus endanger agricultural production.

Responsibility of the manufacturers: Reduced use and regular analyses

In addition to politicians and authorities, agricultural operations are also responsible for ensuring the safety of their products. One way is to reduce the use of pesticides and encourage alternative approaches such as organic farming and integrated pest management. The use of natural enemies of the pests or more resistant plant varieties can reduce the need for pesticides. In addition, careful application of the pesticides according to the applicable guidelines is important to minimize the risk of residues in food.

An important step is to regularly check the products for pesticide residues. For this purpose, analytical methods are used that enable precise quantification and identification of pesticides. Common analytical techniques include gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (HPLC) combined with mass spectrometry (MS). These methods allow sensitive detection and determination of pesticide residues in food. Laboratory service providers such as Biolytix specialize in pesticide analysis. The cooperation with special laboratories makes a significant contribution to independently checking the product quality of agricultural products. At the same time, they support manufacturers in interpreting the results and implementing suitable measures to reduce pesticide residues in the long term.

Establish effective alternatives – sustainable crop protection

There are alternative approaches and practices to promote more sustainable use of pesticides in agriculture. Organic farming, which does not use synthetic pesticides, is becoming increasingly important in Switzerland. Agroforestry is a modern method. Trees and shrubs are integrated into the agricultural areas to support natural pest control. Another approach is the promotion of ecological diversity on agricultural land. By creating habitats for insects and other animals, natural predators of pests can be encouraged to reduce pesticide use.

Overall, the use of pesticides – not only in Swiss agriculture – is associated with significant effects on the environment and biodiversity. Politicians and authorities are still obliged to promote alternative approaches or their development, to implement them and to establish far-reaching controls. Manufacturers are largely responsible for the safety of consumers. Through the proactive use of alternative methods as well as constant analyzes and cooperation with experienced service providers, they ensure that their products meet quality standards and legal limits are observed.