Growers and other food producers in four key crops are testing a prototype pesticide risk-assessment software package before a rollout later this year for all crops.

The Pesticide Risk Mitigation Engine, or PRiME, was slated to launch in February for potatoes, tomatoes, apples and wine grapes, with the full-scale online tool expected to go live in August, says Amrita Batra, PRiME outreach coordinator at The IPM Institute of North America Inc., Madison, Wis. The organization is coordinating the effort by scientists, growers, processors and environmentalists.

Users will see evaluations tailored to an individual field or block based on site-specific sensitivities such as neighboring streams or residences. Each pesticide will show a risk level, from green for the safest through yellow to red for products of greatest concern, and will offer mitigation suggestions to reduce risks still further, Batra says.

Application factors—timing, sprayer types, liquids or aerosols—and existing mitigation practices also will come into play, she says.

Maps from Google Earth have been integrated into the PRiME program so growers gain a better understanding about the proximity of their fields to sensitive areas.

Tying risk ratings to site characteristics may be the biggest benefit for users, Batra says. “That’s different from (simply) saying Captan is good or bad.”

The focus isn’t on restricting use of any products, but rather to help growers make informed choices among available compounds “in an unbiased, neutral and scientific way,” says Paul Jepson, director of Oregon State University’s Integrated Plant Protection Center in Corvallis.

Slicing it finer

Most pesticide labels warn broadly of dangers to fish and birds, says Pierre Mineau, research scientist for Environment Canada in Ottawa. “But what does that mean? (PRiME) tries to slice it finer.”

The “fourth level” of pest management is choosing products that are not only most beneficial but also least harmful, Jepson says. “This is the piece that’s been missing.”

Underlying the system is data from the Environmental Protection Agency and other science-based indexes. New products and new data will be added continually.

The tool allows spray-data uploads from farm-management software to streamline use. Making PRiME easy for all computer skill levels is critical, Batra says.

Users may either scrutinize a single application without setting up an account or store password-protected data for annual and year-to-year comparisons, she says. A $25 subscription fee for unlimited use and data storage is planned.

Growers can subdivide their operation into separate workspaces for each field or block, while crop advisers and processors might follow a similar model for each grower they work with.

Granting both parties password access to share data boosts efficiency, Batra says.

Software provides more details

Andy Diercks, vice president of Coloma Farms in Coloma, Wis., and part of PRiME’s advisory committee, says the package offers a more detailed pesticide-risk evaluation than what’s now incorporated in the Wisconsin Healthy Grown potato program.

“I don’t know that we would use it any differently than what we’re doing now” with Protected Harvest, the certification required for the Healthy Grown program, Diercks says. But PRiME’s expanded indexes and detail should make comparing pesticide products both easier and more accurate.

PRiME lets you weigh the risks of one pesticide against another.

Defining sensitive areas accurately may be one ongoing challenge, however, if processors or retailers use growers’ progress over time as one factor in sustainability certifications, Diercks says. Like any other model, PRiMe’s results are only as reliable as the data feeding it.

When certifications and customer comparisons of growers are involved, “The only way to ensure that (reliability) is with a third party checking that on the ground,” he says.

Diercks says he’s also concerned that some parties will use PRiME in ways it’s not designed for and wind up putting growers coping with more sensititivy factors at a competitive disadvantage.

Before the launch, feedback from growers at presentations about the tool was generally positive, Batra says. “It’s something that can make them look good” by placing their pesticide use into perspective for retailers, processors and consumers.

PRiME could lead growers to pick some older products over newer releases by showing how to use them “in a safe, rational way,” Jepson says.

“We don’t want to include a bias against the age of a product,” Mineau says.

Sometimes newer pesticides appear to pose fewer risks because they haven’t been subject to as many post-release studies. “The longer a product is on the market, the more data emerges from tests on other species,” he says.

Not all products are created equal

PRiME will correct against that inherent bias.

Another difficulty stems from how to weigh missing data. For example, a pesticide may have received a waiver for algal testing because preliminary studies indicated no dangers in that area. Assessment systems that don’t take into account why data isn’t there might penalize that product with a higher risk score, Mineau says.

“Not all products out there are created equal,” he says.

“How they’re used and the amount used are factors that can skew things.”

Mineau also is working with the Canadian agriculture department on adapting PRiME for use there by integrating Canadian requirements and conditions into databases.

Eventually the tool could be available to growers in other countries, Jepson says. Multinational food processors and retailers who source items from around the world also might benefit.

But with 38 jurisdictions globally for food and pesticide standards, retooling PRiME for international users could prove challenging, he says.

At the same time, Mineau says, “Where there’s a lack of regulatory structure, this could act as a surrogate.”

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