Farms could slash pesticide use get more crop production without losses, research reveals
Study shows almost all farms could significantly cut
chemical use while producing as much food, in a major challenge to
the billion-dollar pesticide industry
Many farmers want to
reduce pesticide use but do not have good access to information on
alternatives, scientists say. Photograph: Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty
Virtually all farms could significantly cut their
pesticide use while still producing as much food, according to a
major new study. The research also shows chemical treatments could be
cut without affecting farm profits on over three-quarters of farms.
The scientists said that many farmers wanted to
reduce pesticide use, partly due to concerns for their own health.
But farmers do not have good access to information on alternatives,
the researchers said, because much of their advice comes from
representatives of companies that sell both seeds and pesticides.
The work presents a serious challenge to the
billion-dollar pesticide industry, which has long argued its products
are vital to food production, especially with the world population
set to grow to nine billion people by 2050.
However, this was dismissed
as a “myth” in March by UN food and pollution
experts, who said pesticides cause “catastrophic impacts on the
environment and human health” and accused pesticide
manufacturers of a “systematic denial of harms”. In a
further blow, the Guardian revealed in March that Europe
is poised to ban the world’s most widely used insecticides
from all fields.
The new research, published
in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Plants, analysed the
pesticide use, productivity and profitability of almost 1,000 farms
of all types across France. By comparing similar farms using high or
low levels of pesticides, the scientists found that 94% of farms
would lose no production if they cut pesticides and two-fifths of
these would actually produce more.
The results were most startling for insecticides:
lower levels would result in more production in 86% of farms and no
farms at all would lose production.
The research also indicated that 78% of farms would
be equally or more profitable when using less pesticide of all types.
“It is striking,” said Nicolas
Munier-Jolain, at France’s National Institute for Agricultural
Research, and one of the team who conducted the new study. He said
the results show that pesticide reduction is possible today for most
arable farmers, without losing money: “Our results are quite
consistent with the UN [myth] report.”
“But [the research] does not mean pesticides
are useless or inefficient,” he said. The farmers using low
levels of chemicals employ other methods to control pests, he said,
such as rotating crops, mechanical weeding, using resistant varieties
and carefully managing sowing dates and fertiliser use. “It’s
a big change, but not a revolution,” he said.
“If you want real reduction in pesticide use,
give the farmers the information about how to replace them,”
said Munier-Jolain. “This is absolutely not the case at the
moment. 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.”
Prof Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex, UK,
said: “While we have a system where farmers are advised by
agronomists, most of whom work on commission for agrochemical
companies, then inevitably pesticides will be massively overused.
Even the few independent agronomists struggle to get independent
information and advice to pass on to farmers.”
that much pesticide use is unnecessary and a big European Union
initiative to encourage sustainable use, farming continues to be
dominated by pesticide use,” said Matt Shardlow, chief
executive of Buglife.
France’s deadline for a 50% cut in pesticide
use was meant to be 2018 but has been postponed to 2025, with use
actually rising not falling. The UK’s action
plan for the sustainable use of pesticides contains no targets or
timetable. “Financial advisors and doctors cannot profit from
their advice to individuals and it is time that this market failure
was corrected for pesticide sales as well,” Shardlow said.
Graeme Taylor, a spokesman for the European
Crop Protection Association (ECPA) which represents pesticide
manufacturers, said: “Characterising it as an argument between
using more or less is unhelpful as it ignores the reality that any
genuine commitment to sustainable agriculture means giving farmers
access to a variety of tools. Pesticides are not a panacea, but are
one of the most important tools available to the farmer to fight
pests and diseases.”
He said a recent consultancy report
commissioned by the ECPA indicated that French farmers would lose
€2bn of grape production without access to certain pesticides.
The new research showed that the type of farms most
sensitive to cuts in pesticide use are potato and sugar beet farms,
because they use high levels of pesticides and are highly profitable.
But it showed that most arable farms could cut pesticides by over 40%
without losses. The researchers wrote: “The reduction of
pesticide use is one of the critical drivers to preserve the
environment and human health.”
“Farmers are doing their best to use fewer
pesticides,” said Munier-Jolain. “Many are motivated
because they are thinking about their own health.” He said that
there was a perception among farmers that cutting pesticide use
increases the risk of poor harvests, but that those diversifying
their crops actually decreased such risks: “They sleep better
than the other farmers.”
This article was amended on 10 April 2017 to
clarify that lower levels of insecticides would result in more
production in 86% of farms and no farms at all would lose production