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In search of a good label

On virtually every pesticide container, it’s written in big, bold letters, “Read the label and booklet before using.” My guess is almost no one complies, and with good reason

In search of a good label

It can be a ridiculous request. Labels have become virtual novels. The label for the most widely used pesticide in Canada, glyphosate, can be over 100 pages long. If you tank mix glyphosate with another herbicide such as Pardner, add another 59 pages to your bedtime reading.

Has anyone ever taken the time to read 160 pages of label text before applying their pest control treatment to a single field?

To compound the issue, labels are technical in nature, written in hard metric, and there is no standard format for how the information is presented.

Growers understandably turn to other sources for information about their pest control products. For some, that information may come from their dealer, for others from an agronomist, and for still others it may come from a neighbour. But do even these folks have time to read through hundreds of labels and stay completely abreast of the new information?

We know that the label contains vital information about rates, timing, pre-harvest intervals, crop rotation, and restrictions. Get any one of these parameters wrong and you risk poor control, crop damage or residues. You may even put your own safety at risk. Yet between the government’s need to protect us from all risks, and the manufacturer’s need to ensure we use their products correctly, labels have evolved into something that does neither, since they just don’t get read.

Labels have always been a pet peeve of mine. In addition to their sheer length and difficult language, there are a couple issues that really stand out as impediments to the proper application of pesticides. The first is the following statement found on the vast majority of products:

“Refer to the tank-mix partner label for use directions, restrictions and precautions.”

In modern weed control we rarely use one pesticide, but rather tank mix two or more products. Unfortunately many manufacturers make tank mixing a daunting task by failing to provide full instructions on their labels. Instead, they take the approach of demanding farmers find and read the tank-mix partner label themselves.

I do not want to pick on a single product, since this is a very common practice in the industry, but Evito fungicide serves as a good example. Suppose you have powdery mildew in your durum wheat and choose Evito to take care of it. The Evito label states it cannot be used alone but must be tank mixed with another fungicide, such as Folicur.

Yet the Evito label includes no instructions for using Folicur except “Refer to the tank-mix partner label for use directions, restrictions and precautions. When EVITO 480 SC Fungicide is used in combination with other fungicides, always follow the most restrictive label restrictions and precautions.” This means growers must find a label for Folicur and read through that 17-page Folicur document in order to know how to apply Evito to their wheat crop. Again, I did not want to focus on Evito, a very effective fungicide, but it is a good example of what can be found on literally hundreds of labels.

In defence of pesticide manufacturers, it’s easy to understand why they are unwilling to include complete tank-mix partner instructions on their labels. Pesticide labels are already massive and the inclusion of full details on each tank-mix partner would bloat these out of control. Manufacturers also worry that there could be changes on the label of the tank-mix partner product, which would demand that they reflect those changes on their own product labels. When you have over 40 tank-mix partner products listed on your label, as is the case with a product such as Horizon, a manufacturer could be in a position where it needs to rewrite its label every few months.

To avoid this responsibility, they simply demand that we read the label for the tank-mix partner, effectively shifting the burden onto the farmer.

The second major issue with modern pesticide labels is that information is not organized in a standardized industry format but is often scattered throughout the label, requiring us to read the entire label if we want to be certain we have all the necessary information.

Labels have evolved over time as more crops, tank mixes, and application methods are added. While manufacturers have done a commendable job of adding new uses to labels, less thought has been given to how information is organized, making them a Mensa-like exercise to actually figure out precisely how to apply the product. Again, not to pick on a single pesticide, I will use the example of the very popular product Roundup WeatherMAX here. Let’s say you want to use WeatherMAX to control certain weeds in your soybeans. You would need to wade through that lengthy label and pull information from the following sections.

  • Page 14 — Mixing instructions
  • Page 18 — Buffer zones
  • Page 19 — Weeds controlled
  • Page 31 — Surfactant information
  • Page 37 — Application rates and notes
  • Page 41 — Tank mixes for soybeans
  • Page 58 — Aerial application instructions
  • Page 70 — Broadcast and spot treatment instructions
  • Page 71 — Application details and PHI for tank mixes
  • Page 77 — Spot treatments in soybeans
  • Page 80 — Pre-harvest treatments

While Monsanto does a better job than most at providing information about tank-mix partners, it still does not provide enough, and demands that users “Consult the XXX Herbicide label for tank mixing instructions and use precautions including instructions on replanting to other crops.” So as noted above, in addition to reading that 101 page glyphosate label, you should also be reading the label for the tank-mix partner.

Manufacturers will continue to add more crops, pests, and instructions to labels, as they should. Health Canada will continue to demand more information be included to protect human health and the environment, as it should. Both are doing their jobs, yet that results in labels getting longer, more challenging to read, and more difficult to follow.

It’s time for the pest control industry, led by the industry association CropLife Canada, to show some leadership on this issue. If the industry is genuinely interested in the proper and safe use of pest control products, it needs to make it easier for farmers to follow the rules.

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