Cameron Highlands Farmer Field School for Pesticide-free Food

Biocontrol agents as a nature-friendly farming technique is being taught to conventional farmers to suppress pest populations in Cameron Highlands and arrest chemical pollution to land and water, reports Mallika Naguran

Cameron Highlands, 23 March 2016. Farmers in Cameron Highlands are beginning to see the value of switching from chemical-based pesticides to biological solutions in ridding bugs and grubs off their commercial crops.

Agriculture is the main industry in Cameron Highlands, followed by tourism. Growing and selling vegetables, fruit and flowers has become lucrative trades, which has led to an exponential growth of agricultural activities in the forest reserves of Pahang.

 Farmers such as Vellasamy learn of biological solutions and other environmentally-friendly practices in growing cabbages at the Farmer Field School.

Farmers such as Vellasamy learn of biological solutions and other environmentally-friendly practices in growing cabbages at the Farmer Field School.

“From one thousand hectares of vegetable farming land, Cameron Highlands today has 11,000 hectares of vegetable plantations. Around 10,000 hectares of forests have been cleared in the last 17 years to make way for this,” said Suresh Kumar of Cameron Highlands division of Parti Socialis Malaysia (Socialist Party of Malaysia) who had spent hours urging farmers to embrace sustainability within their farming practices. 

The escalated farming has brought along unsustainable use of chemicals such as pesticides and chemical fertilisers, which cause serious pollution of land and water. 

In a study conducted by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia on Cameron Highlands from 2014 to 2015, toxic organic pollutants such as endosulfan have been discovered in river and streams as well as treated drinking water from the tap. This substance has been banned in Malaysia and globally under the Stockholm Convention.

Health issues arising from the exposure and consumption of endosulfan include impairment of development and reproduction of animals and humans. It is also acutely neurotoxic with the following symptoms of acute poisoning: hyperactivity, tremors, lack of coordination, staggering, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, convulsions. In severe cases it can lead to unconsciousness. 

 By providing information, training and field trips, PANAP reaches out to farmers to embrace safer, ecological farming practices.

By providing information, training and field trips, PANAP reaches out to farmers to embrace safer, ecological farming practices.

To curb this problem, Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP), with the help of scientists, extension officers and experts in the field of agriculture, began to reach out to farmers through a structured, informative and demonstrative program - a Farmer Field School.  

The aim of the programme is to get Cameronian farmers to become better informed about food safety and environmental issues related to chemical pesticides and fertilisers as well as to manage and monitor their farms with safer and healthier farming methods.  

Farmer Field School, Cameron Highlands

The first Farmer Field School in Blue Valley, Cameron Highlands was held in 2015 and it focused on one problem at a time - the infestation of diamondback moth or DBM, Plutella xylostella (L.) among cabbages.

According to entomologist Dr. Peter Ooi, the moth’s presence in Cameron Highlands and infamous reputation was known as far back as 1925 and a series of pesticides have been used to contain them, with little or no success. This includes the use of DDT, gamma BHC, dieldrin, malathion and methomyl, to state a few.

In spite of trial and error over the decades with the use of varying pesticides coupled with increased resistance of pesticides in DBM, farmers in Cameron Highlands continue to struggle with bug infestation in crops.

One farmer who switched from conventional chemical pesticide to a biological method in cultivating bug-free cabbages is Mr. Vellusamy. Based in Blue Valley, he was approached by PANAP to attend the Farmer Field School in mid-2015, and did so out of curiosity. 

 Farmer Vellasamy from Blue Valley now grows cabbages for sale without toxic insecticides, thanks to Farmer Field School.

Farmer Vellasamy from Blue Valley now grows cabbages for sale without toxic insecticides, thanks to Farmer Field School.

After visiting a few farms and a period of disbelief and mistrust, Mr. Vellusamy began to have a change of mind, and heart.

“It was only when I visited Fung Chee Siang’s Hatiku Agrikultur in Ringlet and listened to his organic philosophy where I was compelled to change my farming ways. I observed that the farm had a simple layout, the crops were laid out in neat rows and planted evenly apart. There were no bugs on them even though no pesticides was used. I could not believe my eyes, but it was true,” said Mr. Vellusamy at the graduation ceremony held in Brinchang, Cameron Highlands today.

In fact, in just six months, he went on from being a proud user of expensive chemical pesticides - just to get rid of any pest he chances on - to getting some help from nature. 

A solution was to use a bug to act against another bug! A biological control programme for the DBM was initiated in 1975. The Diadem Semiclausum (Hellen) appeared to be the most effective parasitoid in getting rid of the DBM, according to Dr. Ooi, without harming any other life forms.

The Diadem Semiclausum originated from New Zealand, first from the South Island, which was then introduced to the North Island for acclimatisation as the temperature there was comparable to that of the Malaysian highlands, before it was finally introduced into Cameron Highlands. 

Complementing this bug, the Diodromus collars (Gravenhorst) was also introduced, which is a pupal parasitoid of the DBM. 

As part of the Farmer Field School program, Mr. Vellusamy was sponsored to visit a few farms in other parts of Malaysia and Cambodia where he picked up more tips on non-pesticide farming. 

In adopting this new way of farming, Mr. Vellusamy enjoyed his first harvest of bug-free non-pesticide laced cabbages in December 2015. He experienced changes such as lower yields, which then required a review of sale price and marketing methods to make up for the revenue difference. PANAP and partners supported him throughout this transition. 

Saying No to Pesticides for Health

Dr.Ooi had persisted to conduct numerous researches while working closely with farmers over the decades, overcoming one obstacle after another, and travelling to a number of countries to figure out how to deal with the bugs in cabbages.  

“I was the rascal of the whole place as I dared to challenge the farmers,” he added 

“It is a fact that 98% of pesticide spray goes into the soil, affecting the soil quality and waterways,” said Dr. Ooi, who shared this fact and other information on poisonous chemicals to around ten famers who attended the ceremony. 

 Conventional Cameronian farmers and students attended the first Farmer Field School of Cameron Highlands graduation ceremony, along with organic farmers, social and environmental groups.

Conventional Cameronian farmers and students attended the first Farmer Field School of Cameron Highlands graduation ceremony, along with organic farmers, social and environmental groups.

Cameron Highlands has more than 1,000 farmers of which a handful employ pesticide-free or organic methods. The use of harmful chemicals in farming continues to be a plague in Cameron Highlands despite governmental regulations, health advisories, environmental pollution, research findings and occasional enforcement.

“We must not lose sight of how profit-driven, corporate agricultural production dictates the type of food available, most of which have been produced with heavy dosage of pesticides that damage the environment and people’s health, especially children,” said Sarojini Rengam, the executive director of PANAP.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel. PANAP continues to reach out to the rest of the farming community with the help of the governmental Department of Environment and non-governmental Regional Environmental Awareness of Cameron Highlands or REACH.

“Farmer Field School exists in 11 countries and now for the first time it has begun in Malaysia,which is in Cameron Highlands! I am so happy and proud of this achievement!” beamed Dr. Ooi who has made it his personal calling to act against pesticides.

In the meantime, Mr. Vellusamy is still learning about avoiding pesticides for the rest of his crop. But one thing is for sure; he is a convert, at least where cabbages are concerned. 

“Earthworm is my best friend in farming,” he grinned.

Reference:

Silva MH, Gammon D; Gammon (February 2009). "An assessment of the developmental, reproductive, and neurotoxicity of endosulfan". Birth Defects Res. B Dev. Reprod. Toxicol.86 (1): 1–28. doi:10.1002/bdrb.20183.

Cameron Highlands Local Plan 1990-2015; Cameron Highlands Draft Plan 2030