Reducing Pesticide Use in Agriculture

Despite longstanding recognition of its environmental and health-related consequences, pesticides remain a common tool to protect crops from pests and pathogens. In response, new strategies are being developed to reduce the use of pesticides.

Pesticides

Pesticide Use. Image Credit: maRRitch/Shutterstock.com

Pesticides in an era of rapid population growth

It is estimated that 3.5 million tonnes of pesticide products are used annually around the world, with herbicides alone accounting for over 80% of the total amount. Such an extensive amount of pesticide is used to mitigate the impact of pests and pathogens, which is expected to increase with the rise of global temperatures.

This trend is further reinforced by the reliance on a limited number of crops, which require more pesticides as they do not possess the genetic or species diversity to limit the spread of pathogens or reduce their potential damage. This is particularly true for chemical pesticide, which is frequently used to address the increasing demands on crop production in rapidly developing countries.

However, the use of chemical pesticides has been associated with many negative impacts on the environment as well as human health. Environmental effects include the loss of non‐target species as well as widespread contamination of soil and water systems. Pesticides also contain carcinogens that can be transmitted to humans through accidental poisonings, direct contact, or consumption of products treated with pesticides.

Such serious environmental and medical threats have generated a strong resistance against the use of harmful pesticides in countries such as France, which advocates for all-out organic farming. Additional findings in 2018 indicated that following a sharp increase in pesticide use in the 1990s, we are now seeing a decreasing trend in the global use of pesticides since 2007.

Although an initial reduction in global pesticide use is a promising sign towards the improvement in agricultural practices, the solution to widespread pesticide use may be more complex. This is particularly true since an all-out ban is recognized as unfeasible despite the increasingly popular trend of organic produce.

Alternative strategies modifying the use of pesticides

Modifying the usage of pesticide products in agricultural systems has been suggested to be the most promising strategy to maintain profitable crop yield whilst minimizing health or environmental-related concerns.

To achieve an effective modification in the use of pesticides, the mechanisms generating negative impacts must first be understood. This process was established through scientific and epidemiological surveys that revealed how most chemicals within pesticides were not used by crops due to leaching, mineralization, or bioconversion, and instead were spread into the surrounding environment. Such unintentional contamination then affected non-target species or areas, often culminating in concerns for human health.

Existing techniques that modify the approach to pesticide use may include a general reduction of pesticides or a reduced concentration of harmful ingredients within the products, as well as using alternate pesticide products integrating different products entirely.

Further modifications to the approach may include a different technique of spreading pesticide, such as a controlled-release system as reviewed in a 2020 study by Indian researchers. This review highlighted the challenges of current pesticide use as well as the most effective strategies to integrate modern technological advances into addressing these challenges.

The work published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials discussed the value of turning towards ‘smart’ technology to alleviate the impacts of pesticides whilst maintaining crop productivity. This trade-off is a central challenge in improving agricultural practices as it extends beyond the use of pesticides and addresses the need to refine current approaches by employing emerging technology.

Pesticide reduction may already be a viable and available strategy

Although reducing or altering pesticide usage in agricultural systems may seem less than a viable strategy for stakeholders to maintain crop profits, reducing pesticide usage has been shown to have limited economic repercussions. Recent studies in France have focused on this particularly due to the nation’s belief in organic agricultural practices.

One study on French wheat production in 2014 revealed that directly halving pesticide use decreased wheat production by a maximum of 15%.  Additionally, a review from 2017 revealed that nearly 60% of French farms could reduce pesticide use by up to 42% without any reductions in profit margin. Such findings indicate that pesticide reduction is currently accessible to farmers in most production situations.

However, it is important to note that results may be context-dependent and a need to better understand how reducing pesticide use may vary depending on crop resiliency, demand, and socioeconomic context, which future research may be able to consider.

How pesticide use may change in the future

Alongside strategies aiming to improve the use of pesticides, other strategies can be used to reduce the necessity of pesticide products or bolster the effectiveness of pesticides when required. For instance, genetically modifying plants to make them more resilient to certain pests or pathogens that would otherwise require pesticides could result in a further reduction in additional pesticide usage.

Using a combination of strategies to address emerging issues is particularly important when considering the future of agricultural demands. The growing pressure of food security generated by rapid socioeconomic development and burgeoning populations may require the use of certain pesticides to ensure crop availability. This necessity is further exacerbated when estimating the unpredictable changes in crop yield due to environmental change looking into the future.

These challenges highlight the necessity of developing alternative and more effective pesticide use. Nevertheless, awareness of the impacts and ramifications of pesticides is crucial.

Growing awareness of the effects of agricultural practices has been noticeable over the past years with greater consideration of environmental implications of practices, policies, and production methods. Scientific interest has also grown, and research has employed a wide range of methods, including the tracking of honeybees that sense pesticide concentrations in the environment. Transforming bees into agents of pesticide detection is only one of many strategies that may provide further insight into how to quantify and better understand the effects of pesticide use.

It is increasingly clear that understanding and predicting the consequences of agricultural practices, such as pesticide usage, has many benefits for the environment and human health. Interestingly, improving existing practices, or developing alternative ones, also has considerable potential in increasing overall crop yield whilst improving environmental and human health.

Sources

  • Decourtye, A., Devillers, J., Aupinel, P., Brun, F., Bagnis, C., Fourrier, J., & Gauthier, M. (2011). Honeybee tracking with microchips: a new methodology to measure the effects of pesticides. Ecotoxicology, 20(2), 429–437. doi:10.1007/s10646-011-0594-4
  • Hossard, L., Philibert, A., Bertrand, M., Colnenne-David, C., Debaeke, P., Munier-Jolain, N., Jeuffroy, M. H., Richard, G., & Makowski, D. (2014). Effects of halving pesticide use on wheat production. Scientific Reports, 4(1), 1. doi: 10.1038/srep04405
  • Lechenet, M., Dessaint, F., Py, G., Makowski, D., & Munier-Jolain, N. (2017). Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms. Nature Plants, 3(3), 1. doi: 10.1038/nplants.2017.8
  • Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P., Maipas, S., Kotampasi, C., Stamatis, P., & Hens, L. (2016). Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 1. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2016.00148
  • Singh, A., Dhiman, N., Kar, A. K., Singh, D., Purohit, M. P., Ghosh, D., & Patnaik, S. (2020). Advances in controlled release pesticide formulations: Prospects to safer integrated pest management and sustainable agriculture. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 385, 121525. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2019.121525
  • Zhang, Wenjun. (2018). Global pesticide use: Profile, trend, cost/benefit, and more. 8. 1-27.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 23, 2021

James Ducker

Written by

James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  

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