A 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. 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.
“Farmers are doing their best to use fewer pesticides,” said Nicolas Munier-Jolain, at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, and one of the team who conducted the new study. “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.”
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. The scientists said 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.
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.”
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 of pesticides 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.
[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.”