Uncovering toxicity impacts to improve regional banana production
For AgroFair, a large banana importer looking to differentiate its products, PRé developed the easy-to-use pesticide footprint tool to quantify the toxic impacts of pesticides on human health and freshwater ecosystems.
How do you differentiate your product in terms of sustainability when all similar products are also covered by a sustainability label? In a philosophical sense, this is a great problem to have; the world all sustainability labels and companies are striving for. In a business sense, it is an opportunity to look for environmental impacts that the current sustainability labels don’t cover, and to start the ball rolling to the next level of sustainable production.
This is exactly what AgroFair did. A large importer of bananas, AgroFair ran into the situation that nearly all bananas are now sold with some kind of sustainability claim. To find out whether toxic impacts from pesticide use can be a differentiating factor, AgroFair and PRé collaborated to develop Pesticide Footprint, a user-friendly tool to easily assess the impact of pesticide use on human health and freshwater ecosystems.
Most bananas sold in Europe nowadays have some sort of sustainability label, such as Rainforest Alliance, ISO 14001 or Fairtrade. One of the labels is AgroFair’s Oké label. AgroFair started in 1996 with the import and distribution of Oké bananas from Latin America to supermarkets in Europe. Nowadays they also import certified organic bananas, which are called eco-Oké bananas.
Because of the increase in sustainability labels, it is getting more difficult for AgroFair to differentiate their Fairtrade and certified organic bananas from other labelled bananas. AgroFair was interested in finding out whether pesticide-related toxic impacts could be quantified and made visible to retailers and consumers, and ultimately used for differentiation and to create a competitive advantage.
There are large differences between farms in the amount of pesticides used, the geography and the climate and soil conditions. To find out whether toxic impacts can be a differentiating factor, AgroFair consulted PRé to develop a user-friendly tool that quantifies the toxic impact of pesticides on humans and freshwater ecosystems.
The tool we developed, Pesticide Footprint, is based on the scientific consensus model USEtox v2. Users can fill in the amount of each of 24 commonly applied pesticides used per farm. The tool automatically calculates the human toxicity and freshwater ecotoxicity scores per farm, and ranks the five pesticides that contribute most to the impact. To guarantee robustness and reliability, the tool is also configured to generate alternative results using the USES-LCA toxicity model. USES-LCA is part of the commonly used impact assessment method ReCiPe.
We calculated the pesticide footprint for three farms to gain insight into how differences in pesticide use affect the environmental performance of different farms. AgroFair selected the following farms:
- Conventional banana farm in Panama
- Banana farm with reduced amounts of pesticides in Ecuador
- Organic banana farm in Peru
AgroFair’s suppliers provided the amount of pesticides used, the pesticides’ active ingredients, and the farm’s yields per hectare in 2014, based on their GlobalGAP plant protection product lists.
As expected, the results uncovered very different scenarios, due to the effect that geography, climate, and soil characteristics have on pesticide use, and ultimately on the impacts on freshwater ecotoxicity and human health.
Additionally, we trained AgroFair’s team in the use of the Pesticide Footprint tool to enable them to independently perform the calculations to determine the footprint of additional farms.
The results showed that the human toxicity impacts resulting from banana production in the three case studies are likely to be very different. Conventionally produced bananas in Panama cause about 20 times more comparative toxic units (CTUh) per tonne of bananas compared to bananas grown with reduced amounts of pesticides in Ecuador (see figure). The chemicals that contributed the most to the impact of bananas from farm 1 were chlorphirifos, mancozeb and myclobutanil. For organic bananas – produced without the use of synthetic, potentially toxic pesticides in northern Peru – the toxicity-related impact was zero.
The freshwater ecotoxicity impacts from banana production in Panama were about 30 times higher compared to production in Ecuador. The chemicals that contribute the most to the impact of bananas from farm 1 are azoxystrobin and mancozeb. For organic bananas from farm 3, the toxicity-related impact was zero, because no synthetic pesticides were used.
Additional insights from different settings and models
The concentration of pesticides to which humans and eco systems are exposed is influenced by landscape parameters like average temperature, precipitation, fraction of natural area, etc. Therefore, we performed our analysis twice: once with the default landscape settings and once with region-specific landscape parameters, to see how the results were affected. USEtox provides landscape parameter values for several regions, including those covering Central America, Peru and southern Ecuador. We found that the region-specific characterization factors increased the score of the Panama case by about 300% compared to the default landscape settings, whereas the score of the Ecuador case did not change significantly. A further analysis of the influence of the different landscape parameters showed that the average precipitation rate was the most important parameter for freshwater ecotoxicity and that natural and agricultural area fractions were the most important parameters for human toxicity.
We also applied the alternative toxicity model USES-LCA to test the importance of impact assessment modelling choices. The analysis with USES-LCA generally confirmed the results of USEtox. In addition, applying USES-LCA showed that the impact on terrestrial and marine ecosystems, which are not included in USEtox, may be significant.
- Tool and in-house capability to calculate pesticide footprints.
With our user-friendly Pesticide Footprint tool, AgroFair’s team can now autonomously calculate the pesticide footprints of additional farms. In the three case studies, the tool showed that the modeled toxicity impacts from banana production are very different on different farms, particularly for human toxicity. AgroFair will use these insights in the communication with their stakeholders, and they will discuss with their banana producers which pesticides are best to be avoided.
- Identifying improvement areas through stakeholder collaboration.
The study also identified how a commonly accepted approach can be implemented with the different farms. Based on the identified improvement areas, we provided Agrofair with a concrete list of recommendations for the stakeholders.
- Input for consumer communication.
Ultimately, AgroFair wants to develop easy labels based on this region-specific, scientific consensus tool. Our study made clear that they would need to involve more stakeholders and get consensus on the approach for Pesticide Footprint development.