Good and Feasible Alternatives to Intensive Pesticide Use

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The intensive use of pesticides continues to be a common practice found in industrial agriculture. In Europe, as in many other places with these agricultural practices, there is a widespread belief that the vast use of pesticides is not only necessary, but it is the only option to safeguard yields. Nevertheless, researchers, agronomists and even lawmakers are pointing towards new possibilities. Alternatives exist, particularly when considering proper applications of Integrated Pest Management.

In 2009, the European Union adopted directive 2009/128/EC, establishing the objectives to reach a sustainable use of pesticides [1]. The directive focuses on improving training to all participants in the pesticide distribution and application chain, making them more aware of best practices and risks. Besides, it instates the promotion of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which "emphasises the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms" [2]. Under the principles of IPM, farmers are encouraged to apply sustainable mechanisms of pest control, which excludes the prophylactic use of pesticides [3].

In the case of neonicotinoids, the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides already evidenced that alternative methods are available and that their regular use was often unnecessary. Furthermore, their unsustainable use would entail a significant negative impact on the environment, strongly affecting local biodiversity.

According to the Task Force, IPM also leads to finding other, better-informed solutions for maintaining a healthy crop. Sustainable alternative methods include crop rotations, use of resistant varieties, and collaborative insurance funds. These methods go hand in hand with an adequate monitoring of plagues and their development, that field experts perform before deciding on any anti-parasitic measure. With well-established observation methods, farmers count with an alarm system that helps avoid preemptively using products that have direct or second-hand negative impacts on the environment. Besides, when plagues are detected, IPM points towards the use of non-chemical methods of control, thus reducing undesired effects on the health of humans, wildlife and the environment [4].

An adequate application of IPM, as suggested by the Task Force, is not limited to neonicotinoids. IPM is not only a response to one pesticide-family, but it includes crucial agronomical practices that improve sustainability. Moreover, it aids in enhancing environmental conditions, thus providing substantial benefits in the protection of ecosystem services such as pollination.

Alternatives to pesticides not only exist but are even pointing towards improved conditions for farmers. For example, a recent study by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) introduced a series of alternative pest control methods. The Center, which is partly funded by the European Commission and the United Nations, found that measures such as planting flowering economic crops are beneficial for both biodiversity and yields. They even reported having impressive gains in yields in test sites, ranging from 50% up to 561%, depending on the region and the crop [5]. The study introduces an outstanding example to show that alternatives exist and are economically viable.

The research and application of alternatives to the intensive use of pesticides are not only beneficial but necessary. The challenges of biodiversity loss that we are facing, as reported by IPBES [6], call for a new agricultural rationale in which sustainability rests at its core. The Sustainable Pesticide Use Directive, along with the application of Integrated Pest Management, already set a framework in which new agricultural practices are possible and required. Through their adequate application, we can reduce our negative impact and improve the health of the environment and its inhabitants, including us.