‘Insurance’ spraying

A new study says most farmers can generate more profit by cutting back on crop protection. But wait… is it really that simple?

Today, we all recognize “recreational tillage” as a phrase we use to criticize farmers who haven’t been paying attention to how we’ve learned that we can put an end to a lot of excessive tillage, thereby reducing soil erosion, fuel and equipment costs, and manpower requirements.

But now we need to ask: Is “recreational spraying” joining “recreational tillage?”

Without question, farmers are spending a lot more time spraying pesticides, with many of us making multiple passes a year over every field. But are all those sprayer hours and investments in pesticides justifiable?

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This is a critical question given the increasing demand by consumers for reductions in pesticides in both their foods and the environment. Consumers are worried when they see reports of pesticide residues in their food and even water. In France in 2013, the General Directorate of Health reported seven per cent of French citizens “had been supplied, at least once, with drinking water that was over the maximum authorized pesticide concentration.”

Because of consumer pressure, France has adopted the ECOPHYTO national action plan which calls for a 50 per cent decrease in pesticide use by 2025. (Initially, the target date for this reduction was 2018.)

To find out what impact this ruling may have on agricultural production, a group of agronomists in France tackled the question of pesticide overuse, and they have now released their eye-opening findings in the paper “Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms” published in the journal Nature Plants in March of this year.

Specifically, they wanted to find out whether substantial reductions in pesticide use are possible without having an impact on crop productivity and profitability.

The five scientists on the team analyzed pesticide usage, the productivity and the profitability of 946 conventional farms across the country. All farms in the study were non-organic and applied pesticides and fertilizers, although pesticide usage varied widely between farms.

The scientists also compared the actual usage of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other products including growth regulators and rodenticides against the recommended application rates of these products for the specific crop rotation system used on each farm.

The researchers found that only 59 farms (just six per cent of the farms in the study) would likely experience a decline in productivity if pesticide usage decreased.

They also found, where there were productivity losses, it was almost always because of herbicides. Reducing fungicides or insecticides had little impact on productivity except on intensively farmed crops like potatoes and sugar beets.

Even so, 55 per cent of the farms could cut back herbicide usage with little impact on productivity.

More importantly, 39 per cent of farms would actually be more productive if they reduced their pesticide usage. (These farms were often livestock producers applying large amounts of pesticides to crops like corn that are grown for feed.)

The cost of pesticide overuse becomes even clearer when the scientists looked at farm profitability. The paper states: “We found that pesticide use could be reduced without a significant impact on profitability in 67 per cent of the surveyed farms.”

As well, in 11 per cent of the farms, pesticide use reduction could even significantly increase profitability.

The conclusion of this study was: “Our results suggest that pesticide use could be substantially reduced without any financial cost, but also without any financial interest, for most of the French arable farmers.”

However, this does not mean it would be cost-free. The study found that to achieve this pesticide reduction would require changes in “crop rotation, soil tillage practices, cultivars, sowing dates and density, fertilizer, and so on.”

Switching to non-chemical control of weeds increases the risk of production losses, they found, whereas introducing non-chemical control of disease tends to increase productivity but decrease profitability.

Insecticide usage and its impact on productivity and profitability correlated closely with oilseed rape in the crop rotation. Reducing the frequency of oilseed rape had lower insecticide costs and higher productivity and profitability.

The bottom line is that reducing pesticides increases the complexity of decision-making and management on the farm.

In others words, it requires more and better management, and it requires changing away from current farm management practices. Plus, it reintroduces risks that modern conventional farming systems, with their use of chemical controls, had largely mitigated.

Such a change would not be easy for risk-averse farmers.

North American status

Many will argue that this study has little relevance in North America since we don’t use nearly as much pesticide as is applied in Europe. There are two problems with this argument.

First, zero tillage, technological advances in sprayers, and rapid adoption of fungicides and other new pesticide products (including organic and biological products) are driving a rapid increase in pesticide use in North America. Second, consumer rejection of pesticides is global, and a push to reduce pesticide usage in Europe will prompt calls for reductions elsewhere, including Canada.

In 2012, Diana Yates at the University of Illinois reported in the Western Farm Press that Michael Gray, a crop scientist at Illinois, had surveyed 2011 corn and soybean fields for pests in 47 counties in the state and found key insect pests to be at or near zero in many counties. In Yates’s report Gray stated: “I’ve never seen anything like it in 22 years of doing this kind of research. From an insect diversity perspective, it’s a biological desert in many of those fields.”

Instead of using integrated pest management practices, Gray found growers rely on multiple chemical applications. Farmers tended to throw everything in their arsenal at pests in an attempt to achieve total pest control each and every year.

Instead of an integrated pest management program, Illinois farmers have adopted what Gray called an insurance pest management program. According to Gray, risk-averse Illinois corn growers saw investing $20 or $25 per acre in an additional pesticide application as cheap insurance when they have already invested an average $850 an acre in fertilizer, seed, crop insurance, machinery, and land rent (or ownership) costs for their corn crop.

This “insurance” attitude is further entrenched by farm lenders, agronomists, and advisers all pushing farmers to maximize yields, abetted by constant pressure from retailers and chemical manufacturers to use more pesticides.

Make no mistake. I’m not endorsing or arguing for organic production. Numerous studies have shown lower productivity with organic production. Most suggest productivity falls in the range of 19 to 25 per cent, according to a recent UBC paper by Verena Seufert and Navin Ramankutty. These University of British Columbia researchers have compared the results of a large number of organic and conventional research studies. Rather, the French study and Gray’s work simply encourage farmers to restrict the use of pesticides to when they are truly needed.

As a farmer, are you ensuring the need of the pesticide before application? Do you actually scout your fields to determine if and what pest infestation is present before spraying? Do you select the pesticide you are applying for the actual pests present, or do you use a broad-spectrum product to get whatever might be out there?

Do you know the threshold infestation level of a pest that makes control economical, or do you simply spray if the neighbours spray for the pest? Do you leave a control or untreated check in the field for each pesticide you apply to see the effect of not spraying? If not, how do you know if the investment you made in the pesticide was economical?

Overuse of pesticides not only increases cost of production but also increases the risk of resistance issues, and it increases the distrust by the consumer of the safety of the food we produce. It can even shut North American farmers out of important export markets for our production.

Farmers love to complain about the cost of pesticides and the time they now spend in the sprayer. But are all those products and hours really needed? Only each individual farmer can answer that question for their own farm. But unfortunately, it is a question many farmers are not even asking themselves.

Unless farmers minimize the use of pesticides to the level at which consumers see that the increased production and lower food costs that are made possible with pesticides outweigh the negatives of pesticide usage (including food security and higher prices), governments and society will force the change on us through legislation such as France has already adopted.

On a final note, farmers alone cannot and should not be expected to reduce pesticide use. For a reduction to occur we are going to need investments by government and industry for the development of more pest-resistant crops and alternative cropping systems.

Consumers, too, are going to have to be better educated on the importance of pesticides if productivity is to be maintained and a growing world population is to be fed.

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