Colombia is the world's largest producer of mild Arabica coffee; its annual production averages 14 million 60-kilo (132 lb) bags, most of which are exported. Planting, caring for and harvesting these millions of kilos of coffee is the task of more than 550,000 coffee-growing families, most of whom have a crop area of 1.3 hectares (3.2 acres).

At least 10 pests, including insects, weeds and diseases, can affect the coffee crop of the South American country. To protect their crops, coffee growers must implement agronomic management strategies with an Integrated Pest Management plan, IPM, which include the use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

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The growing concern of consumers about traces or residues of agrochemical products in food is an issue that has been positioned in the conversations and negotiations of international trade in agricultural products. The coffee crop does not escape this conversation.

It is about the Maximum Residue Limits, MRLs, which are a standard that designates the highest level of pesticide residues legally tolerated in food. MRLs are set well below safety margins to conclude that foods produced with pesticides are suitable for consumption. Pesticide residues, if any, are so low that people would have to consume humanly impossible amounts of food to be affected.

Coffee and MRLs

Colombian coffee growers who export to more than 46 countries receive different requirements from the buying countries regarding the Maximum Residue Limits, MRLs. This situation makes the dream of exporting more difficult, because the MRLs of the European Union may be different from those of Japan. If the MRLs are exceeded, the coffee can be rejected. These situations occur despite the fact that to facilitate international trade, the United Nations has more than 4,300 MRLs available in the Codex Alimentarius, a compendium of international standards that seek to promote food safety.

Nevertheless, the Colombian coffee purchasing countries have their own MRLs, they can all be different, which is why farmers must be very well informed about the MRL requirements for each of their markets, follow the instructions on the pesticide label, and apply Good Agricultural Practices. The solution that Colombian coffee growers have found, led by the Colombian Agricultural Institute, ICA, the National Federation of Coffee Growers and ANDI’s Cámara Procultivos, is to comply with the PREHARVEST INTERVAL with strict accuracy.

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The preharvest interval is the time that must pass between the last application of a pesticide and the harvest of the crop so that no traces or residues remain in the bean. This information is found on the label and is a good practice that has managed to maintain the quality and international markets of Colombian coffee.