Gavin Whitmore, Biodiversity Manager at the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) explains the importance of crop protection for sustainable agriculture
Pesticides are perhaps one of the most misunderstood technologies used in modern agriculture. There are currently no viable alternatives to chemical crop protection, and in spite of an enormous volume of misinformation, when used correctly, pesticides offer safe and effective protection for both conventional and organic crops and make an essential contribution towards the sustainable agricultural productivity required to meet the global food supply challenge.
The rural scenes that soften the hard edges of the suburbs and provide space for recreation and relaxation are the frontlines of agricultural production. This is where we grow our food and wherewith their complex interactions and interdependencies – agriculture and biodiversity coexist.
The toil and technology of traditional and modern farming practices weave an attractive patchwork of cultural landscapes and are one of Europe’s great sources of biodiversity. Myriad organisms find food and shelter on farmland. Half of all species endemic to Europe are reliant on agricultural habitats, so it is not surprising that several critical conservation issues are linked to changes in farming practices.
Natural resources and investment in knowledge, innovation and technology have supported an intensification of agricultural productivity, in turn contributing to decades of economic growth and improvements in health and wellbeing. Whilst this is no small achievement, the job is not done. The demand for agricultural produce is expected to increase by 70% by the year 2050, whilst 60% of the ecosystems that support the production of these resources suffer degradation and unsustainable use.
The need for agriculture is clear, it is the how that is the subject of endless debate. The location and scale of farming, the intensity, the crop and the practices used for cultivation – these are parts of an equation that science and politics struggle to balance.
We are faced with a harsh reality, in the long-term, the unchecked use of freshwater and soil and the degradation of biodiversity threatens our ability to supply the quantity and quality of produce demanded by society.
Farmers will be required to double production over the next 30-40 years and there will be pressure to achieve this with more efficient use of land, water, and inputs. Inputs are traditionally used to optimise yields, – for example by minimising the damage caused by agricultural pests. Whilst many of the organisms that live on, or move through farms contribute to the delivery of essential ecosystem services, such as the regulation of soil and water quality and the pollination of crops, some of these organisms are pests that pose risk to human health and productivity, and must, therefore, be managed.
Globally, food crops face severe competition for survival. Some 30,000 species of weeds, 3,000 species of nematodes and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects result in a loss of 20-40% of annual production potential, despite the use of chemical pesticides. Simply put, failure to protect crops is an unnecessarily wasteful use of natural resources that is incompatible with sustainable productivity. Without chemical crop protection, products yield losses would be catastrophically high. At the cost of natural habitats, the area of land required to grow sufficient food would be enlarged to compensate for losses; ultimately, the range, quality and safety of agricultural produce would be reduced.
There is an increasing awareness that society is faced with food security and environmental challenges; however, the tools and practices that enable the sustainable intensification of agriculture do not enjoy wide acceptance. Pesticides and other plant science innovations are too often vilified as a threat to sustainable agricultural productivity, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
On average, it takes a decade of research and development and in excess of $250m to get a new crop protection product on the market; a market that is frequently described as one of the most regulated in Europe.
Pesticides undergo compulsory risk assessment which evaluates whether, when used correctly, products can be shown to have no direct or indirect harmful effect on human or animal health and do not adversely affect groundwater quality. The environmental risk assessment also evaluates the potential impact on non-target organisms when the products are correctly used.
The risk assessment process – overseen by EFSA – the European Food Safety Authority – is an essential contribution to ensuring the protection of organisms such as bees, earthworms and soil microbes that make much of our agriculture possible. Complementing this, the EU Sustainable Use Directive sets out rules for the sustainable use of pesticides to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment; but the measures don’t stop here. Compulsory in Europe since 2014, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a system of pest management that relies on a combination of cultural, biological and chemical means of controlling pests. IPM practices encourage that pesticides are used only when necessary, and when they are used, applications do not exceed requirements.
Additional environmental protection and benefits for biodiversity can be delivered through the implementation of a variety of on-farm management practices. Farmers have at their disposal a range of tried and tested best management practices (BMPs) that can improve habitat and forage for beneficial species, and manage the risk of spill or drift of crop protection products.
From flowering field-margins to cover crops to spray drift technology; farmers have the means to protect both harvests and the environment. A plentiful supply of safe, healthy and affordable food need not cost us the earth.
European Crop Protection Association (ECPA)