'New tools could revolutionize pesticide management in West Africa' - Field schools that train farmers in alternative methods of pest control have succeeded in nearly eliminating the use of toxic pesticides by a community of cotton growers in Mali, according to a new FAO study published, Monday by the London-based Royal Society.
The study was conducted in two areas - the Bla region in southern Mali, where FAO established a field school programme in 2003, and a second area, Bougouni, where the programme was not yet active.
While only 34 percent of all cotton-farmers in the area participated in the programme, pesticide use on all of Bla's cotton farms - more than 4,300 households - dropped a staggering 92 percent.
FAO's study further found that the move, away from pesticide use, had no negative impact on yields.
The Bougouni area, where training has not yet taken place, saw no change in pesticide use over the same eight-year period.
This suggests that knowledge of alternative methods in pest control was further disseminated by programme participants to other farmers in the area, underscoring the potential of farmer field schools to act as catalysts for widespread practice change.
Slashing their use of chemicals and shifting to alternative 'biopesticides' like neem tree extract, growers in the Bla study group reduced their average individual production costs.
By refraining from applying more than 47,000 litres of toxic pesticides, the farmers saved nearly half a million dollars over the study period.
Training farmers in alternative methods of pest control proved to be three times more cost-effective than purchasing and using synthetic pesticides, according to FAO's analysis.
More than 20,000 cotton farmers have been through field schools in Mali.
'We must learn from farmers' experience. Pragmatic, field-based and farmer-centric education can and must play a key role in making agriculture stronger and more sustainable,' said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.
'At the end of the day, sustainable intensification will be the result of the collective action of millions of small farmers, who through their daily decisions determine the trajectory of agricultural ecosystems across the world.'
Cotton is the principal engine of economic development in Mali, where an estimated 4 million farmers grow the high-value crop, accounting for 8-9 percent of Mali's GDP and providing as much as 75 percent of the country's export earnings.