Onions New Zealand has received support from the Ministry of Primary Industry's Sustainable Farming Fund to investigate ways to reduce the use of agrichemicals within the onion industry.
The aim of the Onions New Zealand-led project is to focus on achieving sustainable onion production while reaching production targets and maintaining the onion industry's position as a world-leading onion producer and premium exporter.
''The New Zealand onion industry has a strategic target of 330,000 tonnes in exports by 2025-2030,'' Sally Anderson, of Onions NZ/Market Solutions said.
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''To achieve this the industry needs to maintain current export markets and grow new markets. There is increasing demand from overseas markets for sustainably produced fresh produce and this grower-initiated project will position the New Zealand onion industry on this sustainability pathway, by testing new management approaches to change the onion production system.''
''This project will use benchmarking to measure the success of the changes implemented.
''Ultimately, growers will directly benefit from the industry having authentic and verifiable sustainability credentials that are over and above what any other country is doing.
''This project will cement New Zealand onions internationally as a premium high value product.''
The three-year programme will be guided by a Sustainable Production Leadership Group comprising 20 key industry personnel and researchers.
Plant & Food Research will lead the science effort in the programme and work closely with growers and industry agronomists to identify opportunities to change management practices.
The research programme will start on July 1 and run until June 30, 2022, at a cost of $953,279.
While the primary driver is environmental, and particularly to lower residues, the project will also address other sustainability issues by identifying new management approaches to replace or minimise the use of agrichemicals.
Anderson said the project would develop a benchmarking system for the NZ onion industry and by extension enable the industry to further move towards more sustainable practices.
''This in an opportunity for the sector to focus on what the consumer wants and produce a product that stands out internationally.
''By adopting a benchmarking system, the industry will collectively be able to measure agrichemical uses and quantify and examine these uses in the first year of the project to understand the current situation.
''Leveraging this information, the industry can identify opportunities for change in grower practices, prioritise the options, and test these new management approaches in field trials.
''The benchmarking system will run through the three-year project and beyond and as such will indicate success, or failure, of growers to adopt new approaches.''
The approach will be similar to the Apple Futures programme to transition the industry to low residue production using a combination of selective insecticides, biological control, cultural control and IPM (Integrated pest management monitoring programmes).
At present the NZ Onion industry uses IPM including pest scouting, crop monitoring and targeted pest control.
''Agrichemicals, fungicides and insecticides, are used to control pests and diseases as necessary when triggered by crop monitoring,'' Anderson said.
''Key fungal diseases include downy mildew, white rot, onion neck rot.
''Key insect pests include: thrips, aphids, leaf mining fly, seedcorn maggot.
''As any home gardener knows, sometimes action must be taken to control bugs and diseases.''