Breaking the law using a pesticide

Many of us are breaking the law when we use insecticides, herbicides and other pesticides.

In most countries, licensed agricultural chemical operators undergo training before being issued a licence. However, most people who use pesticides don’t need a licence and don’t get the training. One of the things my training taught me was that using an agricultural chemical (eg a pesticide) in a way that is inconsistent with the label is unlawful, unless there’s a permit stating otherwise.

This is the state of the law in most countries including Australia, the USA and Canada. This usually relates to herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and pesticides generally. That’s certainly the case in Australia.

All users of agricultural chemicals must follow the label’s instructions. Most people I talk to don’t know this. One thing I learnt at law school was the maxim: ignorantia non excusat  which translates to: ignorance of the law is no excuse…


How might we break the law when we use an agricultural chemical?

If a label says to mix 5ml of solution per litre and we mix 3 ml per litre we’ve just broken the law. If we use a pesticide solution that is too weak (and inconsistent with the label) the chemical application isn’t going to work. More importantly, weak solutions lead to chemical resistance building up quickly. That’s a key effect of pesticides where we didn’t follow the label.

A solution that is too strong (and not consistent with the label) affects other species and may cause other detrimental effects. Increased leaching may occur causing increased harm down stream. Bio-availability may increase if the solution is too strong. That means other species through the food web get negatively affected.

The same thing can occur if a chemical is used at the wrong time in the life cycle of a target species or under sub-optimal environmental conditions.

For example: I’ve seen people use an insecticide on leaves covered in stippled dots. Typically, stippled leaves indicate mites. However, unless we look at the leaf through a microscope, we won’t know if the mites are still there or not. Where are they in their lifecycle?

Often they’ve moved on and all we see under the microscope is a bunch of empty egg shells. So spraying a stippled leaf may not be effective and may not be consistent with the label. In doing so we’re breaking the law.


The political element of the labelling regime

I’ve seen two insecticidal products with exactly the same active ingredient: one was registered for use in certain ways the other wasn’t registered at all. They were Neem oil products. They both work in exactly the same way. The registered one had a label that said what insects the Neem oil was to be used on. It was twice the price of the unregistered one.

Of course corporations pay for registering their products for use on certain organisms. The Neem oil is a classic example of this double standard. The labelling regime isn’t about the active ingredient alone – both neem oils have the same active ingredient.

It isn’t necessarily about delaying resistance. Using a pesticide consistent with the label generally slows chemical resistance. However, there’s much more to that story including using different modes of actions. Read my blog on adaptation and resistance to chemicals.

When a company registers their product under this label based system, their product becomes lawful to use in the ways stipulated on the label. It might work in other ways and for other insects or diseases but unless those are stated on the label, you can’t lawfully use it in that way.

Categories: methods


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