In the developing world, the inappropriate use of toxic chemical pesticides frequently leads to human, animal, and environmental health issues. When travel restrictions imposed by the rise of COVID-19 put a pin in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management’s plan to spend the month of March delivering pesticide safety training in Nepal to address the problem, the team moved online.  

The IPM Innovation Lab, in collaboration with its latest project, Feed the Future Nepal Integrated Pest Management, has already hosted at least 200 participants in the first of its virtual training sessions. By inviting government agencies, private pesticide retailers, nongovernment organizations, Extension workers, and others — who connect with farmers in a variety of ways — the team aims to contribute to policy change that will enforce the safe sale and careful use of chemical pesticides.

“As a global land-grant university, Virginia Tech aims to improve the lives and livelihoods of people around the world,” said Muni Muniappan, director of the IPM Innovation Lab. “Offering virtual trainings allows us a unique opportunity to foster rich conversation between different kinds of audiences. Farmers in the developing world are already challenged by the pandemic, so we want to ensure that by advocating for their safety and introducing ways forward, we can perhaps reduce some of those burdens, despite not being able to actually be there in person.”

The online trainings are presented by Tim McCoy, a Virginia Cooperative Extension associate for Virginia Tech’s Pesticide Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They cover such topics as proper pesticide disposal methods, pest resistance to chemicals, pesticide labeling, and reducing skin exposure. One of the main goals of integrated pest management is introducing farmers to a variety of agricultural options for mitigating pests rather than relying solely on pesticides.  

In Nepal, farmers face food insecurity in part due to the pervasiveness of pests and diseases attacking crops. However, the use of expired, highly toxic pesticides leads to even further problems, such as contaminated drinking water and human respiratory and reproductive issues. Without regular access to chemically resistant gloves, masks, and goggles, farmer exposure is even further exacerbated. The high prevalence of illiteracy also remains a barrier to farmers following basic handling guidelines that help reduce heavy chemical residues left on food.

The trainings provide knowledge on safer ways farmers can protect themselves from overexposure to harsh chemicals — say, by choosing a safe, designated space in which to mix pesticides, properly disposing of chemical containers, wearing clothing that can provide greater skin protection, and when and how much to spray. The trainings also focus on ways to prevent harmful environmental impacts from the excessive use of chemicals, with such recommendations as pesticide rotation so as to evade pest resistance, or the application of bio-pesticides, which helps reduce the loss of beneficial insects that naturally keep harmful pest populations low.  

“Such international trainings enable policymakers in Nepal to sidestep some of the oversights the U.S. might have made in the past when designing pesticide regulations,” McCoy said, “and more important, put into place modern safeguards around things like pesticide residues on harvested crops. Likewise, they provide farmers with the best modern recommendations on how to minimize their exposure risks to the pesticides they must rely upon.”

While the majority of the training participants were from Nepal, IPM Innovation Lab collaborators from Bangladesh and Cambodia were also invited in the hopes that knowledge of pesticide safety could be integrated more widely across South Asia.

The IPM Innovation Lab is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Sara Hendery

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