Stop the Farmer Guilt: Pesticides Play an Important Role in Food Production

Owen RobertsDespite efforts to explain pesticides’ role in modern agriculture, confusion still reigns supreme in the eyes of the public.

And no wonder. Pesticides get blamed for a lot of things; most recently, for wiping out bees.

That accusation caught the Province of Ontario’s attention last summer and fall, when wildly fluctuating accounts of bee mortality – and the causes behind it — made headlines.

The province responded by creating a 33-member working group, representing the apiary sector, research institutions, grain growers, agri-business and government, to try to get to the bottom of it all and identify approaches to better bee health.

Bee mortality rates climbed as high as 43 per cent in 2011, but they also fell to 12 per cent in 2012, below the average of 15 per cent

The group filed its report with the premier a few weeks ago, citing a broad range of 13 options for going forward.

Banning neonicotinoids, the pesticides blamed by some for bee deaths, was not on the list. An outright ban was being sought by some parts of the agri-food sector, but the working group said no single option would fully address the issue. It also noted that although mortality rates climbed as high as 43 per cent in 2011, they fell to 12 per cent in 2012. That’s below the normal 15 per cent average.

The 13 options cover a range of actions. They include improvements to growing practices and communications, environmental enhancements, technology advancements and training as well as regulatory approaches.

I suspect the public will read this to mean it’s back to the drawing board for farmers. I’m pretty sure they don’t realize pesticide use is highly regulated in Ontario, and that farmers who want to buy or use commercial pesticides on their farm or woodlot, as well as those who sell pesticides, must be certified by completing a safety training course. They likely don’t realize 21,000 Ontario farmers are certified or trained in pesticide safety, as are another 1,000 who sell them.

I also doubt if people really understand farmers use pesticides because insects never rest…well, except for those which hibernate for the winter.  It was hoped the unusually long, harsh winter from which we’re emerging would act as its own pesticide, and take its toll on some of those hibernating insects. Farmers might catch a bit of a break.

But that appears unlikely. Provincial field crop entomologist Tracey Baute of Ridgetown, author of Baute’s Bug Blog, says overall a reduction in pest populations probably won’t be significant, and key pests will endure.

We’re still learning about new, emerging insects. Even though bugs have been with us for thousands of years, invasive species just keep showing up, such as stink bugs and spotted wing drosophila, to name a couple. Farmers need to keep them under control, and researchers keep looking for ways to help them do so.

Some approaches involve pesticides, and some don’t. The best approaches involve several measures integrated together.

Pleading for mercy has proven futile. So as long as insects infest crops – in other words, until the end of time — crop protection will be vital.

And in most cases, pesticides will be an important part of farmers’ crop protection programs.

Click here for more of the Real Talk, Real Action column by Owen Roberts!

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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2 Comments

jodi

Full implementation of IPM as a standard practice, investments in agroecological research, and varietal development that reduces- not increases- reliance on chemical inputs would all go a long way in addressing the public’s very real and founded concerns about pesticide use and overuse. Biodiversity, rotations and inter-cropping also reduce stress on farms from various pests. We must work together to reduce reliance of petro-chem based inputs and energy-intensive practices for a variety of reasons- consumer concerns about the impacts of pesticides on farmers and our ecosystems but one of them.

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Hugh Earl

Couldn’t one plausibly argue that development of modern GMO varieties has done exactly that – reduced reliance on chemical inputs – by replacing older, high application rate herbicides like atrazine with more benign, lower rate herbicides like glyphosate? Not to mention the reduction in insecticide use afforded by Bt technology. Even fertilizer inputs (on a per bushel basis) have declined, due to the higher nutrient use efficiency of modern high-yielding varieties. I think that most educated growers would readily acknowledge the importance and benefits of IPM practices and biodiversity for managing the land in an environmentally sustainable manner, but it seems like modern crop varieties are contributing to that effort, not detracting from it.

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