Farmers use a host of chemicals to combat pests, diseases and competition from weeds. Unfortunately, these chemicals kill more than just the pests they target.
Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens look to Slovenia for inspiration for how farmers can produce good food without poisoning wildlife.
No conclusive data exists about the precise amount of pesticide used in the EU’s agricultural sector. This is despite the fact that farmers are required to make and keep records of pesticide use and despite the EU target that by 2020 “the use of plant protection products does not have any harmful effects on human health or unacceptable influence on the environment”.
Almost halfway into the year, it seems clear that the 2020 target has been missed. Pesticide use in the EU continues to put pressure on biodiversity and the authorisation process for pesticides, while being one of the strictest in the world, does not manage to protect human health and the environment sufficiently (see here and here). The latest annual report by the European Food Safety Agency showed that a third of food consumed in the EU contains residues of two or more pesticides and that several non-approved pesticides were found repeatedly in randomised samples of food produced both within and outside the EU.
A broken system
Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides (collectively known as pesticides) are chemicals used to protect agricultural crops from pests and fungi and to kill unwanted plants, commonly referred to as weeds, competing with the crops for light and nutrients. This has been increasingly necessary because modern industrial agriculture creates the ideal conditions for the presence and proliferation of pests, disease and weeds.
Large fields and sometimes entire regions growing the same crop (a practice known as monoculture) enable the emergence and propagation of pests and diseases preying on that particular crop. This can wreak havoc on vast areas and compromise farmers’ livelihoods. As a consequence, many conventional farmers have become dependent on pesticides to maintain their yields. However, nature is bouncing back and resistant parasites and weeds are forcing farmers to increase their use of pesticides or switch to stronger products (see more here and here).
The current reliance on pesticides is unsustainable and has been identified as a major cause of biodiversity loss. A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food observes that: “Pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a global threat to the entire ecological system upon which food production depends. Excessive use and misuse of pesticides result in contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.”
A new report on crop protection by the RISE Foundation made similar conclusions, explaining that the current regulatory framework and reliance on pesticides leave all stakeholders unsatisfied while driving loss of soil fertility, biodiversity and ecosystem services and creating multi-resistant pathogens. The report concludes that the only solution is systemic change and a new approach to how EU policy and farmers deal with crop protection that would “re-establish ecosystem functions on agricultural land to provide nature-based solutions for pest, disease and weed threats”.
Golden thoughts on agroecology
In Slovenia’s northeastern corner, Matjaž and Maja Turinek’s organic farm Zlate Misli (Slovenian for ‘golden thoughts’) provides a good example of how this can be done in practice. After years of studying agriculture in Slovenia and extensive personal research into organic farming in Denmark, Germany and Wales, they took over some land on Matjaž’s parents’ farm in 2012 and Zlate Misli was born. Today they cultivate 16 hectares of diverse certified organic vegetables, fruit, sunflowers and field crops. They run a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme supplying around 30 local families with fresh vegetables and an additional 150 families with grain and fruit.
For Matjaž and Maja, farming according to agroecological principles is important at a deeply personal level and they see their role as more than food producers: education, workshops and exchange of practices with other farmers is a crucial part of the project. “Our farm is named ‘Golden Thoughts’ exactly because we want it to be a place where like-minded people looking for inspiration can meet and connect with each other, and because we want to share delicious good-quality food with everyone,” the Turineks explain.
One of their most important strategies against pests is good agroecological practice. Intercropping (having several different crops on the same plot) and crop rotation (planting different crops on the same plot in different years) make it difficult for any pest or disease to take root.
In addition, minimal soil disturbance and constant soil cover create healthy soils and make it difficult for weeds to gain a purchase. They have also invested in insect nets to keep pests, such as flea beetles and onion flies, away from their vegetables. Finally, natural elements on the farm – trees, hedges, ponds and wild plants – enhance the presence of natural predators for pests.
Matjaž and Maja have also developed some good strategies against different pests and fungi over the years. They apply biodynamic preparations on a regular basis, and also some natural agents, such as plant preparations (teas, extracts and compost teas), acidic clay, sulphur and microorganisms if needed. But at the end of the day, agroecological farming is predominantly a systemic approach relying on healthy ecosystems to keep crop threats in check. “We do everything to support the natural process because, in organic and biodynamic farming, there are limits to what we can do when a certain problem occurs,” they note.
Know thy pest
Zlate Misli is a good example of a farm dedicated to the fundamental agroecological principle of working with and enhancing natural processes, rather than against them. They are doing it so well that their yields compare favourably with nearby conventional farms.
A widely used umbrella term for crop protection relying on little to no pesticides is ‘integrated pest management’ (IPM). IPM is a broad concept originating in the 1950s and, trimmed to the bone, it refers to using knowledge of pests’ reproductive practices, feeding strategies and food chains in agro-ecosystems to counter them through agronomic, physical (such as nets), biological (for example pheromones), or, when all else fails, chemical solutions. There are many levels of IPM: from Zlate Misli relying exclusively on natural processes and substances to the cautious use of introduced predators and mild chemicals.
EU countries have been legally required since 2014 to promote IPM under the Sustainable Use Directive. The European Court of Auditors concluded earlier this year that the directive has failed to effectively promote IPM due to weak enforcement and a vague definition. However, the directive is due for revision, which provides the EU with a good opportunity to consolidate the position of IPM in European farming. This will be challenging given the strong vested interests in this field, but there is strong support from both civil society and academia for stricter regulation and implementation.
The European Commission has repeatedly announced that the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork Strategy, expected this week, will step up the regulation of pesticide use in the EU and put forward concrete targets for a quantitative reduction. The question of a pesticide reduction target has caused heated debate and been subject to massive lobbying efforts by the chemicals industry. However, the strategy on its own will have little impact, as the actual reduction of pesticide use will require strong laws and a serious rethink of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to incentivise and help farmers to adopt alternatives.
Moreover, the upcoming strategy is not published in an empty policy-landscape. As Henriette Christensen, a Senior Policy Advisor at the EEB member Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN), explains: “The EU already has a number of laws relevant to pesticide use and risk reduction and alternatives to pesticide already exist. What is needed from the new strategies is a new ‘EU crop protection logic’.” This new approach would shift the focus away from replacing one chemically active substance with another to “increasingly replacing chemicals with mostly non-chemical alternatives, to ensure the ecological transition,” she adds.
Regarding the Commission’s current CAP reform proposal, Christensen is sceptical: “The reform proposal does not suggest making the subsidy payments to farmers conditional to the implementation of mandatory aspects of IPM, even though this is required and a keystone in the Sustainable Use Directive.”
The future of farming in the EU is being defined these months with the publication and further development of the Farm to Fork Strategy and the ongoing CAP reform. If we are to succeed in rolling out more resilient agroecological practices, it is of paramount importance that our policies support farms like Zlate Misli and encourage others to follow similar paths, and take an ambitious stance on pesticide reduction targets backed by strong enforcement.