Strategies to Reduce Pesticide Use: Farming for Pollinators
by Joanna Russell Will
In recent years, much attention has been given to the plight of pollinators as their numbers have declined precipitously worldwide. Neonicotinoid pesticides are a primary cause of these dramatic declines, due to both an increase in the amount of pesticide being applied on farm fields and the high toxicity of neonicotinoids to bees and other pollinators. The EU voted in April to ban neonicotinoids from all fields because of the harm they cause to bees. By the end of 2018, the only allowed use of neonicotinoids in EU countries will be in closed greenhouses.
In addition to impacting pollinator populations, neonicotinoids (neonics) have spread throughout the environment, creating a host of issues. Neonics have been found in a majority of streams in the US and have had a serious impact on aquatic invertebrates, who are the foundation of the food chain. Neonics have been found in soil in fields that have not been planted with neonic-coated seeds or sprayed with neonicotinoids,. They have also been found in off-target vegetation, including on organic farms located at distances that exceed the recommended buffer to avoid contamination. Neonics were found in the drinking water supply in Iowa City, and have been found in bees, pollen, and honey across the country. Neonicotinoids have also been found in the human food supply. A single neonicotinoid-coated seed can kill a songbird, and five coated seeds can kill a turkey. Impacts on human health are only starting to emerge but the results are not encouraging.
Studies have shown that for a majority of crops, neonicotinoids do not increase yields or provide other benefits. While chemical companies promote the notion that it is risky or impossible to forgo neonicotinoids on corn, soybeans and other crops, farmers can and do successfully grow these crops without the use of neonicotinoids. Any farming strategy or practice that increases biodiversity, minimizes soil disturbance and builds soil health is a step in the right direction towards reducing the need for chemical inputs, including neonicontinoid pesticides. Practices that provide natural pest control can particularly benefit pollinators by reducing pesticide use.
There are a number of farming strategies and practices that reduce or eliminate pesticide use along with different terminology or titles identfiying them. Following is an overview of a few of them.
Agroecological farming practices are practices that utilize ecological principles in the agricultural setting. According to Marcia Delonge, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “There are actually many terms that refer to the study of ecological processes within agricultural practice: agricultural ecology, ecoagriculture, sustainable agriculture, and regenerative farming, to name just a few. While these concepts may have subtle differences, they all share a core and critical intent: understanding, managing and benefitting from the interactions between soils, crops, livestock, water resources, air quality, weather, climate, wildlife, and biodiversity.” Among the benefits of these interactions is increased naturally-occurring pest control which reduces or eliminates the need for synthetic pesticides.
Agroecology focuses on healthy soil and might include the following practices: organic amendments, animal integration, agroforestry, locally adapted breeds and seeds, barriers and strips, cover crops and green manure, conservation tillage, crop rotation, and diversified fields and landscapes designed to increase biodiversity, minimize erosion and run off, and attract beneficial insects and natural pest predators.
Diversified ecological farming systems are based on healthy, functioning ecosystems, which sustain a number of important ecosystem services, including natural pest control. According to the website of the Center for Diversified Farming Centers at UC Berkeley, “Diversified farming systems (DFS) are a set of methods and tools developed to produce food sustainably by leveraging ecological diversity at plot, field, and landscape scales. By supporting a complex fabric of natural and human ecologies, DFS allow critical ecosystem services – like pollination and pest control – to be generated and regenerated within the agroecosystem, aided by the human knowledge to sustain those processes.”
Diversified ecological farming systems include complex crop rotations, mixed species cover crops, and mixes of annuals and perennials in the rotation which increase beneficial insects and soil microorganisms.
Regenerative agriculture utilizes agroecological practices to sequester carbon in addition to the other benefits of agroecological farming, including natural pest control. While regenerative agriculture is finding a new following recently, the term has been around for a number of years. It was originally coined by Robert Rodale, son of J.I. Rodale, who was a pioneer in American organic agriculture. According to a paper on regenerative organic agriculture published by The Rodale Institute, the early definition stated that regenerative agriculture “takes advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed. In that primary sense it is distinguished from other types of agriculture that either oppose or ignore the value of those natural tendencies.”
The paper goes on to say that, “Regenerative organic agriculture is marked by tendencies towards closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater reliance on internal rather than external resources.”
According to the Regeneration International website, two of the primary practices of regenerative agriculture are using agroecological practices to “contribute to generating/building soils and soil fertility and health” and to “increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency”. Increasing biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency are key strategies in minimizing or eliminating the need for synthetic pesticides.
Organic farming practices forgo synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as genetically modified seeds, automatically eliminating the use of neonicotinoids. Organic practices also offer a number of other ecological benefits. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), “A high percentage of organic farms use production practices with environmental benefits such as water management practices, no-till or minimum tillage, habitat maintenance for beneficial insects and vertebrates, and biological pest control. These ecologically protective practices contribute to enhanced ecosystem services and benefit water quality, soil health, and biodiversity.” Anyone can use organic practices, but strict standards have been established for organic certification for labeling purposes. In the U.S. these are overseen by the National Organic Program and the National Organization Standards Board (NOSB).
Recently, The Rodale Institute announced a new Regenerative Organic Certification. According to their website Regenerative Organic Certification is “…a cooperative effort among a coalition of farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, scientists, and brands, led by Rodale Institute, to establish a new, high-bar standard for regenerative organic agriculture.” These go beyond federal standards. The certification focuses on holistic management focusing on soil health, pasture-based animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers, and building “resilient regional ecosystems and communities.” The certification will be overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
Conservation biological control is a strategy aimed at reducing crop pests, and thus the need for synthetic pesticides, by increasing populations of natural predators. According to The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “With the advent of chemical pesticides, the contributions of beneficial insects (those that prey upon or parasitize crop pests) were largely forgotten. However, pesticides alone have not solved the problem of crop pests. “Conservation Biological Control” is a strategy that seeks to integrate beneficial insects back into crop systems for natural pest control. This strategy is based upon ongoing research that demonstrates a link between the conservation of natural habitat and reduced pest problems on farms.” Conservation biological control includes planting habitat near crop fields and around the farm that will attract natural pest predators.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) does not aim to eliminate pesticide use entirely, but it can be an effective strategy in reducing the amount of pesticide applied. According to the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, “In IPM, pesticides are used in combination with other crop management approaches to minimize the effects of pests while supporting a profitable system that has negligible negative effects.” IPM strategies should involve assessing pest pressure before applying a pesticide or other practices.
No-till farming with a diverse mix of cover crops can significantly reduce pesticide use for many farmers. According to Steve Swaffar, Executive Director of No-Till on the Plains, the more diverse the cover crop mix, the more likely there will be significant natural pest control. The cover crops provide habitat for predatory insects, and the greater the diversity of the cover crops, the greater the diversity of beneficial insects.
While not a comprehensive list, these are a few of the strategies and practices that are being used by farmers in Kansas, and around the world, to raise crops without using synthetic pesticides. Because of the harms of neonicotinoids on pollinators, other wildlife, and ultimately ourselves, it is imperative that more farmers engage in farming systems that do not rely on synthetic pesticides.
Contact Joanna Will at email@example.com.
To learn more about agroecology, visit http://www.fao.org/agroecology/en/, or http://www.ucsusa.org/food-agriculture/advance-sustainable-agriculture/counting-on-agroecology.
To learn more about regenerative agriculture, visit http://regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/, or https://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/WhitePaper.pdf.
To learn more about diversified ecological farming systems, visit https://food.berkeley.edu/centers/dfs/.
To learn more about organic agriculture practices, visit http://ofrf.org/.
To learn more about organic regenerative certification, visit https://rodaleinstitute.org/regenerativeorganic/.
To learn more about conservation biological control, visit https://xerces.org/conservationbiocontrol/.
To learn more about Integrated Pest Management, visit http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/thematic-sitemap/theme/pests/ipm/en/.
To learn more about no-till, visit http://www.fao.org/ag/ca/ca-publications/outlook_pestidices_no_till_and_inputs.pdf.