Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

French scientists say fewer pesticides needed

A new study by French scientists demonstrates that pesticide use can be dramatically reduced — maybe even by half — without impacting crop yields or farm income.

And the French government is acting on the findings, pledging to cut chemical inputs in the country's agricultural fields in half by 2018. Why not, if it means spending less while maintaining yields and reducing risks of exposure to hazardous pesticides? Any responsible government would do the same.

France is currently Europe’s largest consumer of pesticides and ranks third in the world. In fact, it is being taken to court by the European Commission over its failure to adequately protect water from contamination by agricultural chemicals.

Fortunately, scientists in France’s agriculture department have demonstrated, via modeling, that the current level of pesticide use is unnecessary. They found that a 30% reduction could be achieved without reducing productivity or the margins received by farmers. And a 50% reduction caused only a 5-10% drop in yield.

Yield is important, but only part of the picture

Similar studies here in the U.S., from Pennsylvania to Iowa and California, also demonstrate excellent yields when pesticide use is dramatically reduced. In Iowa, for example, researchers found that pesticide and fertilizer use can be reduced by an impressive 70% or more with no loss in yields.

In fact, many reports from around the world demonstrate that organic or other sustainable practices can produce very good yields without the use of highly hazardous pesticides.

Sustainable farming offers many advantages over chemical-intensive agriculture.

Equally important, however, is the fact that sustainable farming offers many advantages when compared to chemically intensive industrial-scale agriculture; yields are just part of the picture. Soil Association research suggests that organic farming can offer a solution to many of the current failures of non-organic farming, such as dependence on high-energy use, high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and widespread pollution.

We need to refocus the debate from the overly simple question ‘can organic feed the world’ to the question of which type of farming and food system can deliver healthy food, including to those in most need, within the constraints of limited energy and the urgent need to protect the soil, air and water upon which we all depend.

Farmers need help to break old habits

The implementation of safer, more ecologically sound practices requires detailed knowledge and understanding of cropping systems and farm ecology, a knowledge that is often more complex and substantially different from that used in conventional, chemical-intensive production. To start, inputs may be quite different — from seed varieties to non-chemical management of soil fertility and use of biological pest control.

Ecological practices require detailed knowledge & understanding of cropping systems & farm ecology.

So it makes sense that government support is often required to help farmers make the switch. The authors of the French report suggested increasing taxes on pesticides in association with better delivery of advice and training on pest management. They also recommend including full cost accounting of environmental impacts associated with agricultural chemical use.

Here in the U.S., as you’ve been seeing here, our representatives in Congress are deep into the process of negotiating a 2012 Food and Farm Bill. We are urging everyone to tell their representatives that our farmers, too, need all the support we can give them to implement sustainable agriculture practices — for the health, prosperity and security of everyone from urban consumers to farmworkers, farmers and rural families.

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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