Study Shows Slashing Pesticides Won't Hurt Production

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April 25, 2017 | 20,959 views

Story at-a-glance

  • In a study of nearly 1,000 French farms, there was no conflict seen between low pesticide use and high productivity and profitability in 77 percent of the farms
  • The researchers found 59 percent of the farms could cut pesticide usage by 42 percent without harming their production
  • Forty percent of the farms would even improve their production as a result of cutting back on pesticides

By Dr. Mercola

"The reduction of pesticide use is one of the critical drivers to preserve the environment and human health," according to recent research published in Nature Plants,1 and I couldn't agree more.

Even many farmers are interested in cutting their usage, especially in the midst of growing lawsuits alleging that the most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), may be causing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in farmers.

In some ways the cards are stacked against them, however, as the people who often advise farmers on pesticide usage are agrochemical company employees, working on commission. Reducing pesticide usage is not in their, or the companies', best financial interest, which only encourages overuse.

Without knowledge of how to reduce pesticide usage, and how it might affect yields, many farmers are reluctant to try.

The Nature Plants study is a major step forward, however, as it found most farmers can reduce their pesticide usage without decreasing their productivity and profits — and in some cases the move may even increase them.

Most Farmers Could Reduce Pesticide Use by 42 Percent

In a study of nearly 1,000 French farms, there was no conflict seen between low pesticide use and high productivity and profitability in 77 percent of the farms.

Further, the researchers found 59 percent of them could cut pesticide usage by 42 percent without harming their production. Forty percent of these farms would even improve their production as a result.2 According to the study:3

"This corresponded to an average reduction of 37, 47 and 60 [percent] of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide use, respectively … Our results demonstrate that pesticide reduction is already accessible to farmers in most production situations."

The findings are eye-opening, especially since the pesticide industry has long maintained that their products are necessary to feed the world. Worldwide, an estimated 7.7 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, and that number is steadily increasing.4

Crop rotation, mechanical weeding and other non-chemical forms of pest control were mentioned as ways that farmers could successfully lessen pesticide use. The major barrier at this time appears to be education. Study co-author Nicolas Munier-Jolain of France's National Institute for Agricultural Research told The Guardian:5

"If you want real reduction in pesticide use, give the farmers the information about how to replace them …

This is absolutely not the case at the moment. A large proportion of advice is provided by organizations that are both selling the pesticides and collecting the crops. I am not sure the main concern of these organizations is to reduce the amount of pesticide used."

Pesticide-Treated Seeds Offer No Significant Gains

Agricultural pesticides come in many forms. While many people think of them as the type sprayed onto crops after planting, seeds are often treated as well. The majority of soybean, corn, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are pre-coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics).

Neonics persist and accumulate in soils, and since they're water-soluble they leach into waterways where other types of wildlife may be affected.

Yet, according to an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers.6

The researchers also noted there are several other foliar insecticides available that can combat pests as effectively as neonicotinoid seed treatments, with fewer risks.

Other studies suggest reducing the use of pesticides may actually reduce crop losses.7 The reason for this is because neonic-coated seeds harm beneficial insects that help kill pests naturally,8 thereby making any infestation far worse than it needs to be.

According to other research, ecologically-based farming that helps kill soybean aphids without pesticides could save farmers in four states (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) nearly $240 million in losses each year.9 But despite such findings, farmers have very limited ability to avoid neonic-treated seeds.

Fungal Pesticides Offer a Non-Chemical Alternative

Biopesticides, which are those derived from natural alternatives, are projected to grow at a faster pace than chemical pesticides in the coming years. Among them are fungal-based pesticides, which are made from parasitic fungi that infect insects, ultimately killing them.

So-called entomopathogenic fungi, which can kill insects, collectively make up about 1,000 species — enough to target virtually every agricultural pest, according to University of Maryland entomologist Raymond St. Leger.10

Unlike synthetic pesticides, many of which are losing effectiveness due to resistance, fungi interact with pests in a way that makes the development of resistance unlikely. Further, as NPR reported, the risks, if any, are minimal:11

"Nemat Keyhani, a professor at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says fungus is compatible with organic farming, harmless to vertebrates — like humans, birds, dogs and cattle — and has a low environmental impact."

Currently, biopesticides cost more than synthetics, take longer to work and must be applied more often. They can also be environmentally sensitive, losing effectiveness at certain temperatures or humidity levels, which means it may be some time before they push synthetics out of the market.

However, as they grow in popularity, new biopesticides may be developed that tackle some of these issues, making them more attractive to farmers. Already, NPR noted, fungus-based pesticides exist that can do things synthetic pesticides could only dream of.

"[The] fungus — Metarhizium, or the green muscardine fungus — is frequently used in the field, shielding crops from beetle grubs, wireworm, corn root worms and countless other insects.

One variant is now being used to develop biopesticides … that can cause a mushroom to grow from a pest's dead body to distribute spores that warn other insects."12

Research Highlights Glyphosate Exposure Risks for Pregnant Women

If there were only one major reason to cut back on pesticide usage, it would be to protect future generations. Not only do these chemicals threaten the Earth as we know it, but they pose a direct risk to developing babies.

In research presented at a 2017 Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN) conference in Washington, D.C., it was demonstrated that women exposed to higher glyphosate levels during pregnancy had babies born earlier and with lower adjusted birth weights.

What's more, the chemical was detected in more than 90 percent of the mothers in the study. Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook said:13

"This herbicide is practically being tested on newborn children today. Preterm birth and small size may lead to serious health problems later in life, from IQ loss to greater risk of serious diseases, and the outcomes may be even more severe for the following generation.

These exposures have to stop in order to protect the health of American children."

Glyphosate has made headlines recently because it's the most used agricultural chemical in history and also because the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined it is a probable carcinogen.

Further, figuring out just how much glyphosate the average person may be exposed to in a day is proving to be an overwhelming task because it's showing up just about everywhere, from Cheerios to coffee creamer.

Glyphosate Residue Found in 30 Percent of Canadian Foods

While the U.S. government has yet to test popular foods for this ubiquitous chemical, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has, revealing that nearly 30 percent of the more than 3,000 foods they tested contain glyphosate.14 This included nearly 37 percent of grain products, 47 percent of bean/pea/lentil products, and more than 30 percent of infant food and cereal. Even 7 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables contained the residues.

Eating non-organic GE foods (the prime candidates for Roundup spraying) is associated with higher glyphosate levels in your body.15 However, even non-GE foods can contain high levels of glyphosate, which are likely the result of the common practice of using the herbicide as a desiccant shortly before harvest.

In northern, colder regions farmers of wheat and barley must wait for their crops to dry out prior to harvest. Rather than wait an additional two weeks or so for this to happen naturally, Monsanto urged farmers to spray the plants with glyphosate, killing the crop and accelerating their drying (a process known as desiccating).

In some cases, non-GE foods may be even more contaminated with glyphosate than GE crops, because they're being sprayed just weeks prior to being made into your cereal, bread, cookies and the like.

Monsanto Sued for Misleading Labeling

Monsanto has long maintained that glyphosate is safe, but it's been added to California's Proposition 65 list of substances that can cause cancer. In addition, it's come out that Monsanto secretly collaborated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to downplay reports that glyphosate causes cancer.

More than 700 cases have been filed against Monsanto related to Roundup health risks, but this is expected to grow into the thousands in the months to come.16 Meanwhile, the non-profit consumer groups Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association have filed a lawsuit against Monsanto, alleging that Roundup's labeling is misleading and deceptive.

Part of the suit relates to Monsanto's language that Roundup targets an "enzyme found in plants but not in people or pets" because, according to the lawsuit, the enzyme is found in people and pets. The suit alleges:17

"Monsanto aggressively markets Roundup as safe for humans and animals, despite newer studies indicating that glyphosate may be carcinogenic and affect human and animal cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous and reproductive systems.

Reasonable consumers must and do rely on Monsanto to report honestly Roundup's effects on humans and animals and whether the enzyme it targets is found in people and pets. No reasonable consumer seeing these representations would expect that Roundup targets a bacterial enzyme that is found in humans and animals and that affects their immune health."

Soil Health Is Key to Feeding the World

It's clear that pesticides are not the answer to solving world hunger; they're a contributor to environmental and human health demise. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has offered incentives for farmers to plant corn for use in ethanol, a non-food crop that may be worse than oil as a fuel source.

Not only that, but in North Dakota, where many farmers swapped their wheat crops for corn to produce ethanol, the soil is becoming LESS fertile as a result. Yale Climate Connections spoke with Emeric Erickson, a North Dakota farmer, who explained that spring wheat establishes quickly and shades the soil, trapping moisture.18

Corn crops, on the other hand, are slow to become established, which means the soil gets a lot more direct sunlight that evaporates away the moisture, leaving behind salts from the groundwater. "The salty soil left behind is not as fertile," Erickson says, which suggests, Yale notes, "Farmers must choose between short-term profit and long-term soil health [as] an unintended consequence of the ethanol boom."

Planting a variety of crops is key to restoring soil health and ultimately feeding the world, as is reducing pesticide usage. The featured study proves this can be done without harming profits and yields, but pesticide makers certainly don't want this news to get out. Fortunately, some farmers are moving toward regenerative, soil-friendly agriculture, anyway, with promising results.

According to David Montgomery, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington and author of "Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life":19

"It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices. Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul.

… I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And [some] farmers [have already] cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions."

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 3 Nature Plants March 1, 2017
  • 2, 5 The Guardian April 6, 2017
  • 4 Ensia June 22, 2016
  • 6 EPA Memorandum October 15, 2014 (PDF)
  • 7 Civil Eats April 29, 2015
  • 8 Journal of Pest Science March 2012: 85(10); 125-132
  • 9 PNAS.org November 5, 2008 (PDF)
  • 10, 11, 12 NPR April 12, 2017
  • 13 Environmental Working Group April 12, 2017
  • 14 The Huffington Post April 12, 2017
  • 15 The Detox Project
  • 16 St. Louis Public Radio March 21, 2017
  • 17 EcoWatch April 12, 2017
  • 18 Yale Climate Connections April 7, 2017
  • 19 The Conversation