How can we reduce pesticide use while empowering farmers? A more nuanced approach might help

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Pesticides threaten people, wildlife and our environment. Food production must change.

But farmers are already pushed to the edge. Organic agriculture produces less food and requires more land. An immediate cessation of pesticide use is likely to reduce productivity and increase prices.

There is no simple answer that makes pesticides right or wrong – context is key.

“Farmers want to produce food in a healthy environment because it makes it easier for us to work,” says David Lord, a farmer in Essex, England. “But when we’re forced to produce so close to the cost of production, people are on such thin margins, they can’t invest in the things they need, and they’re forced to farm in a way they can’t. Don’t want to.”

The pesticide debate is often polarized, pitting farmers against consumers. But that doesn’t show the nuance or priority of trust in scientific evidence. There is a common ground that can be explored by recognizing the benefits to both people and biodiversity that agricultural landscapes share.

For the past ten years, I have studied pollinators, such as bees, hover flies and butterflies – all beneficial species harmed by intensive agricultural practices. I learned that protecting these species starts with engaging, motivating and empowering people.

That engagement starts with real, sensitive conversations with farmers that can be uncomfortable at times but can lead to exciting opportunities for change. Communication also helps researchers like me identify followers who can inspire and empower others.

“I have a lot of respect for organic farmers, they’re so limited in what they can do and they have to be really innovative,” says Lord, who I interviewed for this article.

He spends a lot of time talking to other farmers, visiting farms and seeing how others are developing more sustainable farming practices. Over the past 12 years, he has begun to reduce his use of pesticides and increase the variety of crops he plants.

“It was just a vicious circle. We looked ahead and thought it’s not going to get better, we have to do something different. Fortunately, there was a group of farmers out there already doing things, we learned from them and thought this would work for us.”

The Lord’s actions were only a response to poor profits and environmental conditions. They represent the individual’s ability to challenge the status quo and change.

My colleagues and I have previously suggested that we should monitor pesticides more like pharmaceuticals. Maybe we should treat farmers like doctors. Their job is to treat disease, but they have a fundamental duty of care to their patients – our landscapes.

Settle the debate

The use of pesticides is complex, and so are the ways in which these chemicals affect the ecosystem. Farmers – and the use of pesticides – should not be reduced to one type.

Changing farming practices is a challenge, but transformation is already happening and much more can be done. Cover crops, plants grown for soil cover rather than harvesting, can improve soil quality and keep weeds under control – reducing the need for pesticides and even buffering their use. The UK government promotes this practice.

Pesticides easily contaminate soil, water, air and food chains and have adverse effects. Pollinators are emblematic of the negative consequences of pesticide use, but scientific results are inherently variable and depend on the context of a farming situation. Progress depends on rigorous objective research. We almost always need more information.

Science will continue to advance farming by, for example, developing new pest-resistant varieties and conservation methods. Whatever the approach, basic scientific principles such as objectivity and rigor should always be applied.

Pesticide regulation protects people and wildlife and some of the most dangerous pesticides have been successfully restricted. But the whole regulatory process in the UK (and elsewhere) needs reform. That does not mean, in my opinion, that the regulatory process should become more strict or bureaucratic, but that it should become more realistic and holistic.

wheat crop, close up with a brown butterfly resting on top

wheat crop, close up with a brown butterfly resting on top

We know that beneficial species are exposed to multiple pesticides, for example. In bumblebee colonies across Europe, we found eight distinct pesticide compounds, and up to 27, on average. This type of monitoring once a pesticide is approved could improve upon the single-product, single-use assessment we have today.

It is time to consolidate, harmonize and centralize our scientific understanding and approach. This is particularly timely as the UK embarks on its post-Brexit pesticide strategy.

Pesticides are part of a much bigger issue – food security in a globalized world and the most influential change is global economic powers. Pesticide use is also leading in commodity crops such as cotton, expanding the pesticide debate beyond food systems.

As Irish farmer Andrew Bergin told me: “Nature is very valuable until someone has to pay.”

Pesticides can be reduced sustainably, but this requires an approach that reconciles the seemingly conflicting goals of food production, environmental protection, biodiversity and human health.

People and biodiversity share agricultural landscapes. We are all responsible for keeping it alive. This includes farmers, consumers and retailers supporting sustainable farming practices, and governments introducing strong policies that facilitate real change in the way pesticides are managed.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The conversation

Jessica Knapp receives funding from the Swedish Research Council Forms (grant 2022-00476) and the Strategic Research Area “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate” (BECC) funded by the Swedish government.

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