‘Cut pesticide use, but how?’

19-12-2023 | |
The European Union aims to halve the use and the risk of all pesticides by 2030. - Photo: Michel Velderman
The European Union aims to halve the use and the risk of all pesticides by 2030. - Photo: Michel Velderman

The European Commission wants to halve pesticide use by 2030. On paper, a lot of progress can be booked through smart innovation, and yet change is often slower than hoped. Successful green innovation requires knowledge of plant cultivation, behavioural science, technology and ecology. ‘We want much more of an idea of how farmers think.’

Pesticides have recently become the subject of heated discussions, with the herbicide glyphosate in the spotlight. There are calls across Europe for a ban on this substance. At the same time, the European Union aims to halve the use and the risk of all pesticides by 2030, under the new Regulation on the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products. The pressure is on to find alternatives so that pesticide use can be cut.

Sharper criteria

The assessment criteria for pesticides are continually being sharpened up in the light of new research, says Johan Bremmer, senior Plant Health researcher at Wageningen Economic Research. ‘We’ve been going down that path for decades now, for example with DDT in the 1960s following the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962.’ The two groups of pesticides that are currently under the magnifying glass are neonicotinoids, with their negative impact on insects, and glyphosate, with its potential risks for Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

There are various options for reducing pesticide use, as Bremmer shows in the 2021 report The Future of Crop Protection in Europe. ‘You can opt for more resistant varieties, for mechanical weed control, or for decision-supporting software that helps you apply the right amount of a pesticide at the right moment. This enables you to stop spraying by the calendar, as was done in the past. It means going into your fields more often to assess the crop and take measures in good time. This way, you can save a lot on pesticides.’

New farming techniques

Yet halving pesticide use – even in combination with innovations and new farming techniques – can be expected to affect crops like wheat, maize, tomatoes and grapes, shows a scenario study by Bremmer and his colleagues. Depending on the crop, the harvest can fall by up to 30 per cent, in the olive sector for example. And a drop in yields leads to additional imports and price rises.

Some time ago, one of his colleagues looked into the variation in pesticide use between farms, says Bremmer. ‘The amounts could vary by a factor of five between the farms using the most and those using the least. Whether that is still the case should be investigated. Imagine if the farmers and horticulturalists who use the most started performing as well as those using the least. Maybe you could then quite easily achieve the 50 per cent reduction the EU wants. You might think: the rest must just make a bit more effort. But it’s not as simple as that, because it has a lot to do with experience, entrepreneurial skills, risk assessment, and bearing in mind costs and clients’ requirements.’

Read the article of Wageningen World

Ed Asscheman Online editor Future Farming
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