Always read and follow label directions.” Anyone who uses a pesticide has read this statement. Comply with these six words, and as we all know, insect damage is prevented, fungus outbreaks are stopped or weeds problems are cleaned up.

But use a pesticide off-label, and as we also all know, you are breaking the law. Even if a product controls a pest in one crop but isn't labeled for another crop with the same pest, that application is illegal.

During the past year, growers, and in some cases their suppliers, who chose to ignore those six words learned first-hand how costly an off-label application can get.

In one instance, farmers sprayed an unlabeled product on their grain crop to help speed maturity. Result: upwards of 1 million bushels of grain embargoed. In another incident, a cotton worm pest was eating up non-cotton crop fields across a region and about 60 growers chose to use an insecticide labeled for cotton, but not for the other treated crops.

Maybe these farmers were confused by the wording on the product label. Or maybe the problem appeared so serious that someone figured off-label uses would be okay if they got the job done. Hopefully not.

Some might argue these off-label treatments posed no potential human health risk or harm to the crop. That isn't the point. Any off-label pesticide application is illegal. A pesticide can only be used on a crop listed on the label. Period.

Are these instances of off-label use isolated incidents or indications of a troubling new trend? Last year, there appeared to be somewhat more misuse than in years before. Speaking for CropLife America, any case of misuse is enough to make us very concerned. After all, it's our credibility with the public — and the credibility of farmers, dealers, consultants and sales reps who always follow the product label when applying pesticides — that is at stake.

Fortunately in the instances described above, no tainted commodity entered the food supply and sickened consumers. One need only look back about a decade to the West Coast incident where a product was intentionally misapplied to a fruit crop to gauge the potential negative impact of using a pesticide off-label. Dozens of consumers were sickened, and the affected commodity industry suffered millions of dollars in losses and a tarnished image that took years to recover. All because a single grower selfishly chose to use a pesticide off-label.

These isolated instances of off-label applications cannot rightly be used to condemn all pesticide users and uses in the country. After all, millions of pesticide applications are made each year to literally millions of crop acres. The off-label incidents described above and others reported to regulators recently total far less than a fraction of 1 percent of all lawful pesticide treatments in the United States. Still, it's worth a warning to all farmers and applicators that there is a minuscule minority out there who have the potential to ruin things, or at the least make life much more complicated, for everyone else who legally uses pesticides.

Which brings up the prospect of self-policing. One response to those incidents might be to step up state and federal enforcement actions. But, far more effective and desirable, are the self-policing concepts encompassed in product stewardship programs. Basic tenets of these programs is reading and following label directions and staying current with farmer/applicator training and certification programs, which are widely available. Such programs greatly reduce the chance for applicator error.

Self-policing implies another important action: peer pressure. Some might respond, “I'm not my neighbor's keeper,” but such an attitude ignores the reality of “we're all in this together.” Leading by example and recognition of shared responsibility can be strong motivations for explaining to neighbors why off-label pesticide applications are no small matters.

In these times of heightened awareness following the terrorist incidents of Sept. 11, it behooves everyone to be professional and responsible in selling or using pesticides, which we have constantly demonstrated can be handled and controlled properly and safely. Such an effort will help preserve the products that provide countless benefits to farmers and the consuming public.

Established in 1933, CropLife America (formerly the American Crop Protection Association) represents the developers, manufacturers, formulators and distributors of plant science solutions for agriculture and pest management in the United States. CropLife America member companies produce, sell and distribute virtually all the crop protection and biotechnology products used by American farmers.