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This week's Book of the Week feature is The Myths of Safe Pesticides by André Leu.
In this book, organic agriculturist and lecturer André Leu delves into scientific research to present evidence dispelling the claims of chemical companies and pesticide regulators that pesticide, herbicide and insecticide products are safe when used as directed. Leu breaks down the five most-repeated myths about pesticide safety, refuting them using scientific data.
The excerpt below is from the chapter discussing the myth that “pesticides are essential to farming,” and asserting that pesticides are, in fact, not the only thing keeping our planet from starvation.
From Chapter 5: The "Pesticides are Essential to Farming" Myth
“We will starve to death without pesticides.”
The greatest of all the myths is that we must be exposed to numerous toxic chemicals; otherwise we will have mass starvation. This myth states that it is impossible to grow enough food without the widespread use of these poisons.
The industry, both manufacturers and conventional farming organizations, and regulators consistently argue that not using these pesticides would cause crop failures and dramatic reductions in yields.
The main Australian pesticide regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), is a good example of a regulator justifying the use of pesticides: “Pesticides and veterinary medicines are vital to quality food and fibre production. Australia’s primary production is worth an estimated $30 billion a year with an export value of over $25 billion. Many primary producers rely on pesticides and veterinary medicines to protect their crops and animals from disease and pests.”
When pesticides are being reviewed by regulators for adverse effects to human health and the environment, the industry groups always warn that they have no alternative but to use these toxic chemicals as crop protection tools as the justification for not banning them. In the final outcome, it is usually business as usual, or regulators may decide to modify the way pesticides are used to lessen some negative impacts. Rarely are they withdrawn from use to ensure no adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
Trillions of dollars have been spent on research into conventional agriculture while at the same time in the last hundred years there has been an almost total neglect of research into organic agriculture. A significant proportion of this research funding has been to develop and test the efficacy of synthetic toxic chemicals as pesticides such as herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.
The main reason for the lower yields in some organic systems has been the fact that research and development into organic systems has been largely ignored. U.S. $52 billion is spent annually on agriculture research worldwide. Less than 0.4 percent (four dollars in every thousand) is spent on solutions specific for organic farming systems.
Yet despite this lack of funding, all the data sets from the global meta comparison studies have examples of organic systems that have the same or higher yields than conventional agriculture.
EXAMPLES OF HIGH-YIELDING ORGANIC SYSTEMS
Rodale Organic Low/No Till—The Rodale Institute has been trialing a range of organic low-tillage and no-tillage systems. The 2006 trials resulted in organic yields of 160 bushels an acre (bu/ac) compared to the Berks County average nonorganic corn yield of 130 bu/ac and the regional average of 147 bu/ac.
IOWA Trials—The results from the Long Term Agroecological Research (LTAR), a twelve-year collaborative effort between producers and researchers led by Dr. Kathleen Delate of Iowa State University, shows that organic systems can have equal to higher yields than conventional systems. Consistent with several other studies, the data showed that while the organic systems had lower yields in the beginning, by year four they started to exceed the conventional crops. Across all rotations, organic corn harvests averaged 130 bushels per acre while conventional corn yield was 112 bushels per acre. Similarly, organic soybean yield was 45 bushels per acre compared to the conventional yield of 40 bushels per acre in the fourth year. Cost-wise, on average, the organic crops’ revenue was twice that of conventional crops due to the savings afforded by not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the produce receiving better prices.
These examples need to be researched to understand why and, importantly, to replicate, improve, and scale up globally. This will close the yield gap and has the potential to overtake the conventional average.
Two Key Areas Where Organic Has High Yields
While organic agriculture currently may have lower average yields than the chemically intense industrial agricultural systems in good climate years, there are two areas in which organic agriculture can often have higher yields: under conditions of climate extremes and in traditional smallholder systems. Both of these areas are critical to achieving global food security.
GREATER RESILIENCE IN ADVERSE CONDITIONS
According to research by NASA, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and others, the world is seeing increases in the frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy rainfall. Even if we stopped polluting the planet with greenhouse gases tomorrow, it would take many decades to reverse climate change. Farmers thus have to adapt to the increasing intensity and frequency of adverse and extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy, damaging rainfall. Published studies show that organic farming systems are more resilient to the emerging weather extremes and can produce higher yields than conventional farming systems in such conditions. For instance, the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials found that organic yields were higher in drought years and the same as conventional in normal weather years.
Similarly, the Rodale Farming Systems Trial (FST) showed that the organic systems produced more corn than the conventional system in drought years. The average corn yields during the drought years were from 28 percent to 34 percent higher in the two organic systems. The researchers attributed the higher yields in the dry years to the ability of the soils on organic farms to better absorb rainfall. This absorption is due to the higher levels of organic carbon in those soils, which makes them more friable and better able to store and capture rainwater, which can then be used for crops. Research also shows that organic systems use water more efficiently due to better soil structure and higher levels of humus and other organic matter compounds.
The more porous structure of organically treated soil allows rainwater to penetrate more quickly, resulting in less water loss from runoff and higher levels of water capture. Long-term scientific trials conducted by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland comparing organic, biodynamic, and conventional systems (the DOK trials) had similar results, showing that organic systems were more resistant to erosion and better at capturing water.
This information is significant as the majority of world farming systems are rain fed. The world does not have the resources to irrigate all of the agricultural lands, nor should such a project be started as damming the world’s watercourses, pumping from all the underground aquifers, and building millions of kilometers of channels would cause an unprecedented environmental disaster.
Improving the efficiency of rain-fed agricultural systems through organic practices is the most efficient, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable, and practical solution to ensure reliable food production in the increasing weather extremes being caused by climate change.
SMALLHOLDER FARMER YIELDS
The other critical area where research is showing higher yields for good practice organic systems is in traditional smallholder systems. This is very important information as over 85 percent of the world’s farmers fall into this category.
A 2008 report by the United National Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that assessed 114 projects in 24 African countries found that organic agriculture increases yields in sub-Saharan Africa by 116 percent. The report notes that despite the introduction of conventional agriculture in Africa, food production per person is 10 percent lower now than in the 1960s.
“The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term,” stated Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary general of UNCTAD, and Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.
Badgley et al. from the University of Michigan compared a global dataset of 293 examples of organic versus conventional food production and estimated the average yield ratio. The comparison was divided into different food categories for the developed and the developing world. The researchers found that for most food categories, the average organic yield ratio was slightly less than the average in the developed world and greater than the average in the developing world. Most significantly the study showed that organic farming can yield up to three times more food on individual farms in developing countries, as compared to conventional farms.
This information is especially relevant as Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) data shows that 80 percent of the food in the developing world comes from smallholder farmers. The developing world is also the region where most of the 850 million undernourished people in the world live, the majority of which are smallholder farmers. With a more than 100 percent increase in food production in these traditional farming systems, organic agriculture provides an ideal solution to end hunger and ensure global food security.
Information published by the ETC Group shows that 70 percent of the world’s food is produced by smallholders and only 30 percent by the agribusiness sector. Increasing the yields in the 30 percent of food that comes from the agribusiness sector will show little benefit for two reasons.
Firstly, this sector is already high yielding, and it has very little scope for large increases in yields, such as the more than 100 percent that can be achieved by organic methods in traditional smallholder systems. Secondly, this sector is largely focused on the commodity supply chain. The large food surpluses produced in this sector have not lowered the number of people who are hungry, despite the fact that the world currently produces more than double the amount of food needed to feed everyone. Simply put: the people who need this food the most cannot afford to buy it. On the other hand the people who need it the least are consuming too much. Increasing the production in the agribusiness sector will not solve the current hunger problem.
About the Author
André Leu previously served as president of IFOAM — Organics International and is currently the international director of Regeneration International. Leu has over 40 years of experience in all areas of organic agriculture, from growing, pest-control, weed management, marketing and post-harvest transport to grower organizations, developing new crops and education – not only in his home country Australia, but across Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa.
He has written and published extensively in magazines, newspapers, journals, conference proceedings and newsletters in print and online on many areas of organic agriculture including climate change, the environment and the health benefits of organic agronomy.
Leu and his wife, Julia, run an organic tropical fruit orchard in Daintree, Queensland, Australia.
More By André Leu
Poisoning Our Children, more info on the dangers of pesticides to the health and development of our most vulnerable population – our children.
Buy Poisoning Our Children and The Myths of Safe Pesticides together and save! Learn more about bundling these two titles together.
Audio: André Leu on Alternatives to Pesticides at the 2017 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference.
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Yield in bushels and bales is a poor metric when the aim is to grow food. Measuring the amount of protein, vitamins and essential minerals in the crop makes more sense to me.
Michael Astera on