All too often, pesticides are allowed onto the market before their impact is fully understood and harms to our health and the environment are discovered years later. The science is increasingly clear that even low levels of exposure can harm human health and children are particularly vulnerable.
According to recent research published in Nature Plants, the reduction of pesticide use is one of the critical drivers to preserve the environment and human health. Many farmers are also interested in cutting their usage, especially in view of lawsuits alleging that the most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), may be causing non‐Hodgkin’s lymphoma in farmers.
In some ways, the cards are stacked against them. Since the people who often advise farmers on pesticide usage are agrochemical company employees working on commission, reducing pesticide usage is not in their interest, or the company’s, best financial interest, which encourages overuse. Without knowledge of how to reduce pesticide usage, and how it might affect yields, many farmers are reluctant to try.
The Nature Plants study is a major step forward, as it found most farmers can reduce their pesticide usage without decreasing their productivity and profits; and in some cases, the move may even increase them. In a study of nearly 1,000 French farms, there was no conflict between low pesticide use and high productivity and profitability in 77 percent of the farms. Researchers also found 59 percent of them could cut pesticide usage by 42 percent without harming their production and forty percent of these farms would improve production. This corresponded to an average reduction of 37, 47 and 60 percent of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide use, respectively. Results demonstrate that pesticide reduction is already accessible to farmers in most production situations.
The findings are eye‐opening, especially since the pesticide industry has long maintained that their products are necessary to feed the world. Worldwide, an estimated 7.7 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, and that number is steadily increasing. Crop rotation, mechanical weeding and other non‐chemical forms of pest control were mentioned as ways that farmers could successfully lessen pesticide use. The current major barrier appears to be education. Nicolas Munier‐Jolain of France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research told The Guardian: “If you want real reduction in pesticide use, give the farmers information om how to replace them. This is not the case at present. A large proportion of advice is provided by organisations that are both selling the pesticides and collecting the crops. I am not sure the main concern of these organisations is to reduce the amount of pesticide used.”
Agricultural pesticides come in many forms. Whilst many people think of them as the type sprayed onto crops after planting, seeds are often treated as well. The majority of soybean, corn, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are pre‐coated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonics persist and accumulate in soils, and since they’re water‐soluble they leach into waterways where other types of wildlife may be affected. Yet, according to an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers. The researchers also noted there are several other foliar insecticides available that can combat pests as effectively as neonicotinoid seed treatments, with fewer risks.
Other studies suggest reducing the use of pesticides may reduce crop losses. The reason for this is because neonic‐coated seeds harm beneficial insects that help kill pests naturally, thereby making any infestation far worse than it needs to be. Biopesticides, which are those derived from natural alternatives, are projected to grow at a faster pace than chemical pesticides in the coming years. Among them are fungal-based pesticides, which are made from parasitic fungi that infect insects, ultimately killing them. So-called entomopathogenic fungi, which can kill insects, collectively make up about 1,000 species, enough to target virtually every agricultural pest.
Unlike synthetic pesticides, many of which are losing effectiveness due to resistance, fungi interact with pests in a way that makes the development of resistance unlikely. As NPR reported, the risks, if any, are minimal. Currently, biopesticides cost more than synthetics, take longer to work and must be applied more often, but they can be environmentally sensitive, losing effectiveness at certain temperatures/humidity levels. However, as they grow in popularity, new biopesticides can be developed to tackle some of these issues, thus making them more attractive to farmers.
It’s clear that pesticides are not the answer to solving world hunger; they are a contributor to environmental and human health demise. Planting a variety of crops is key to restoring soil health and ultimately feeding the world, as is reducing pesticide usage. According to David Montgomery, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington and author of ‘Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life’ “It makes no sense to continue incentivising conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices. Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And some farmers have already cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.