Malawi on course to phase out harmful pesticide

Growing tobacco in 'soil-less culture' Copyright: ARET, Malawi

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[LILONGWE] Officials in Malawi are working flat out to promote safe alternatives to the agricultural pesticide methyl bromide, whose use they hope to phase out by the end of the year. If they succeed, Malawi will be the first in southern Africa to phase out all non-essential use of the chemical.

Methyl bromide is widely used to kill pests that damage tobacco, a cash crop and principal source of foreign capital for Malawi. But few farmers are aware that the pesticide is hazardous to human health and the environment, and is partially responsible for depleting the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Parties to the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances are required to stop using methyl bromide. The deadline for developing countries is 2015. “We are currently ahead of schedule,” says Aloysius Kamperewera, deputy director of environmental affairs, the government department that is coordinating the work.

“Malawians need to consider the long term adverse effects of the substance,” says Raphael Kabwaza, director of environmental affairs. “It might not be tomorrow, next week or next month, but the effects of methyl bromide on the environment are disastrous.”

Malawi’s Agricultural Research and Extension Trust (ARET) has intensified efforts to raise awareness among farmers of the threats posed by methyl bromide, and of its alternatives. The campaign is targeting farmers with leaflets, articles in the press, farm visits and training conducted by ARET staff.

Customs officials have also been notified that any imports of the chemical after 31 December should be impounded. Officials will be trained in order to enforce the forthcoming ban.

One of the alternative approaches to pest control being promoted is the use of ‘soil-less culture’, since a principal tobacco pest — a microscopic ‘nematode’ worm — lives in soil. In ‘soil-less culture’, plants are grown in trays that float in plastic ponds set above the ground. Each tray has 200 compartments containing a single tobacco seed and a mulch made from pine bark to enhance root development. The seeds absorb nutrients from the water — which is supplemented with fertiliser — and use the bark for support.

Two other alternatives being recommended are the pesticides ‘metham sodium’ and ‘dazomet’ (traded in Malawi as ‘Basamid’), both of which are also toxic and should be handled with care, but are considered safer than methyl bromide.

“There is need for more time for the rural farmers to understand the phase-out of the substance,” says Kamperewera describing the challenges ahead. “It is a gradual process, but they will embrace the idea with time.”

According to ARET officials, about 71,500 metric tones of methyl bromide are used worldwide every year. Seventy five per cent of this is used in developing countries. Malawi is the second largest user of methyl bromide in Africa after Zimbabwe. Each year more than 130 tonnes of the chemical are used, with tobacco growers using 85 per cent of this.

Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund to Assist Developing Countries is supporting Malawi’s phase out of methyl bromide.