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The term ‘agrochemical’ refers to all chemical products used in agricultural production. This includes plant protection products designed to prevent, eliminate, or control pests, as well as mineral fertilizers intended to enhance crop growth and productivity. These products play vital roles in protecting crops from pests and disease as well as plant nutrition. This helps to maximize yield but may also bring risks for the environment and human health.

The intensive use of fertilizers in particular can be a significant contributor to net greenhouse gas emissions1,2.  Fertilizers can also impact soil health through suboptimal application, overuse, and resulting over-nitrification – destroying the sub-soil network of fungi (mycorrhiza), multitudinous bacteria, and creatures which are essential to the diversity of plants3,4,5. The agrochemical industry itself has increasingly begun to take measures to reduce the impact and intensity of fertilizer use and other products in recognition of its impact, but lasting positive change will take time.

Rigorous testing7 of substances and their formulations is conducted to minimize potential human and environmental impact. Testing typically occurs within laboratory settings, with results then extrapolated to natural settings. The overall safety and impact of agrochemicals, including those used in coffee farming, is subject to regulation on both national and global levels,. Regulations can however vary internationally, with some countries subject to less stringent regulation on individual compounds or the concentration levels allowed in agricultural use10,11.

A Colombian farmer fumigating a coffee crop with pesticide


It is important that farmers are well informed on the use of lower impact agrochemical products and farming techniques, but they must be equipped with the right tools to reduce their environmental impact while still effectively preventing disease, or food safety and quality risks, as well as ensuring yield and protecting income.

For example, the use of nitrogen fixing ground cover crops has been shown to be a more natural complimentary strategy for chemical fertilizer use12,13, while appropriate training14,15 on quantity, timing and place of application has been shown to improve the effectiveness of mineral fertilizer application16. Many of these methods fall under the wider umbrella techniques of regenerative agriculture, which seek to restore, enhance, and improve the health of both soil17 and local biodiversity for the benefit of farmers and the wider environment. Wider work is also ongoing to explore new and existing coffee varieties that provide natural resistance to pests or fungi18.

Integrated pest and disease management aims to positively reduce the use and impact of agrochemicals on the environment and human health by considering all available pest prevention and control techniques, including non-chemical alternatives. At one end of this spectrum is organic farming, which refers to growing coffee without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Other natural methodologies include co-cropping with plants that act as pest repellants or encouraging insect and animal life which preys on coffee pests.

Agrochemical residues can make their way into the local water system, carrying risks for both local people and the environment19. In addition to setting out principles around the safe and efficient use of pesticides, the Global Coffee Platform (GCP) Coffee Sustainability Reference Code sets out the requirement for producers to minimize water pollution20. For example, maintaining buffer zones or regenerating natural vegetation close to water bodies.

Looking forwards and ISIC role

In addition to regulatory requirements, and alongside the aforementioned natural techniques, these risks can be reduced via greater education on best practices for optimum use of agrochemicals.

As well as existing certification and supply chain initiatives, ongoing scientific efforts continue to be directed towards better understanding the environmental impact of plant protection and nutrition solutions, often as part of complex mixtures, across real-life environmental settings21. ISIC continues to monitor and engage with the latest initiatives and scientific developments in this area, supporting the more responsible and sustainable use of agrochemical products.