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Solutions for fruit exporters’ pesticide residue headaches

At 2,7 million tonnes per year, South Africa is the largest fresh fruit exporter by volume in the southern hemisphere. Local produce is sold in 92 countries around the world, ranging from markets just north of its borders, to destinations as far afield as America, Europe, the Middle East and China.

The European Union remains our main export destination. It is a lucrative market for local fruit producers, but also one that is highly regulated in response to consumers’ demand for high quality fresh fruit that was produced using practices that conserve natural resources and protect the health of workers throughout the value chain.

To achieve these outcomes, growers depend on pesticides. It has been estimated that between 30% and 40% of our food would be lost without products that increase crop yield and protect quality. But agrochemicals are controversial because of their potential to harm people and the environment.

Countries therefore seek to regulate the use of agrochemicals on fresh produce through, among others, maximum residue levels (MRLs). MRLs are the maximum amount of a pesticide legally allowed in a food or feed crop, and are set nationally. This, however, causes huge problems since food is traded internationally and it is not uncommon for different MRLs to be set in different countries. To compound matters, large supermarket chains often set their own MRLs.

In the interest of giving the local industry smart solutions to navigate this minefield, Syngenta hosted a series of workshops where international speakers shared their insights into MRL regulations in the EU with fruit producers, packhouse managers and key industry stakeholders.

Held in the Eastern and Western Cape in the last week of August, the roadshow featured Caroline Willetts from Jealott’s Hill, Syngenta’s biggest R&D facility, which is located in the UK.

Willetts pointed out to delegates that the MRL is an assessment of, and indicator for, correct local use of a pesticide. And while a MRL has to be safe, it is not in itself a safety standard. MRLs are trading standards whose primary purpose is to facilitate trade between countries.

“One of the greatest challenges fruit exporters face, is the fact that MRLs are not harmonised globally,” she said. Reasons for this include the fact that national MRLs reflect national concerns, and that pest pressure can vary enormously from one country to another, requiring varying levels of pesticide use. Furthermore, if a product is not registered in a country, it will have no set MRL.

Knowing the complexities is one thing; dealing with them is another, hence Willetts offered practical solutions that local industry players can apply. The key to not falling foul of MRL regulations is integration and taking a holistic view, she advised. When choosing a crop protection product, for instance, the grower should consider where the product will be positioned in the overall crop protection programme, what the intended export destination is and whether the product residues meet EU supermarket requirements.

Willetts furthermore emphasised the importance of proper sampling, noting that reliable results depended on the analysis of a representative sample that is prepared according to how the crop would be sold. “And if the lab results don’t tie up with your analytical experience, ask them to check their results or redo the analysis. You could even get a second opinion from a different lab,” she recommended.

Willetts concluded her presentation with a reminder of the wealth of information available within Syngenta locally and internationally. “In most cases a Syngenta agent will be able to help a grower find solutions to MRL issues,” she says. “As long as we sell a pesticide we continue to make sure that it is safe, hence there is always new information coming out to enhance farming practices in line with Syngenta’s Smart Farm philosophy.”

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