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Technical Updates


Thursday, 14 May 2020
Reducing Risk: FSC’s Approach to Chemical Pesticide Use in Forest Management

By: Justin Meier


Synthetic chemical use remains an integral part of the commercial production of most living commodities today. In forestry, chemical use includes pesticides - defined by FSC to include insecticides, rodenticides, acaricides, molluscicides, larvicides, nematicides, fungicides and herbicides. Ecologically, their use is a substitute for the absence of historical disturbance mechanisms, like fire. Economically, pesticides can decrease time to market and, thus, increase investment value and competitiveness.

Of course, pesticides are not without drawbacks, including the unintentional application to non-target organisms and uncertainty regarding the effects of long-term exposure. FSC’s Pesticides Policy seeks to reduce pesticide use in forestry, especially where non-chemical processes have more favorable cost/benefit characteristics, and eliminate it in the long-term.

FSC is widely regarded as the global “gold standard” in forest certification. Voluntary and market driven, FSC’s forest certification provides a framework for environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable forest management. Reducing pesticide use applies to all three aspects of this framework, which requires that a conservative approach to risk be taken when scientific knowledge is incomplete.

From an environmental and social perspective, chemical pesticide use has a long history of health and ecological concerns, conflict with economic interests, and evolving scientific research. Rulings by national and international organizations that govern chemical use do not always align; for example, the conflicting findings of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as to the probable carcinogen status of glyphosate. While many chemicals have survived consistent scientific scrutiny, there is no shortage of examples of once-commonly used chemicals subsequently found to be unacceptably harmful. Take as examples now banned or restricted chemicals like DDT, dioxins, and asbestos. When it comes to chemical pesticides, clearly, a precautionary approach is merited.

In the world of digital information, consumers have access to both scientific and marketing information about chemicals. The general market trend is one of consumers becoming increasingly concerned not only about potentially harmful chemicals within products, but also about harmful chemicals used in their production and subsequently released into the environment. Given this, reducing chemical pesticide use can bolster the appeal of FSC-certified products.

Considering developing science and the demands of FSC’s global marketplace, FSC revised its Pesticides Policy in 2019, placing greater emphasis on the circumstances under which pesticides are used. At the heart of the new policy is the concept of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs). Defined by FSC based on information developed by international and national organizations (e.g., WHO), HHPs are identified by compiling and organizing standardized toxicities (hazards) into thresholds that consider the risk those hazards pose to humans and the environment. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a first step in the policy, which identifies and prioritizes control options up front that limit hazards to people, property, and the environment. In place of derogations, which were permitted in the prior policy, organizations must now identify, assess, and control risk through an environmental and social risk assessment (ESRA) and the implementation of risk mitigation measures (e.g., establishing buffers around sensitive ecosystems and making sure forest workers wear appropriate personal protective equipment).

While the new Pesticides Policy has yet to be integrated with the FSC US forest management standard, the core components of the prior Policy remain. These manifest in the Standard in Principle 6: Environmental Impact. The intent of this principle is to maximize positive environmental impacts and minimize adverse ones. A precautionary approach guides on-the-ground forest management activities when the effects of those activities are uncertain, as is the case with chemical pesticides. In practice, this means Principle 6 motivates forest owners to reduce or eliminate use of chemical pesticides, use IPM and other smart forest management concepts to reduce reliance on chemical pesticides, and ensure that through appropriate planning and training, risks to people and the environment are minimized.

To some degree, the cost-benefit characteristics of chemical pesticide use continue to include uncertainty. As stewards of the environment, forests, and the animals and humans that depend on them, FSC and its community of certified forest managers must responsibly address the issue. That said, awareness, understanding, and commitment from the wider community of forest products consumers and organizations are required for policies like this one to reach their full potential in improving the health and well-being of forests, wildlife, and people – in the US, and around the world.