Imagining a world without pesticides

With the world population set to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, is truly sustainable agriculture a possibility?

Chemical pesticides have been contentious since they first came into existence. They have become an essential part our food supply — helping drive economies forward, increasing crop yields and global food output. However, controversies around their safety still exist.

Organically farmed produce is on the increase. This has inevitably led to a renewed interest in the scalability of organic agriculture, and so, questions whether there’s enough land to feed the world through organic means need to be asked. Just how realistic is it for us to feed a growing population without the use of pesticides used to keep pests and diseases at bay?

One of the reasons why chemical pesticides are accepted is that they help increase food supply without the need to increase land mass. In theory and in practice, they are efficient. Even when we consider the rise of 'superbugs' which are immune from the chemicals we spray on crops, they more often than not still have a positive impact on the agricultural sector.

But with claims that neonicotinoids are harming dwindling bee populations, clean water supplies being contaminated, and dwindling global biodiversity, maybe we need to think again about using agricultural chemicals so much. Despite all these concerns, studies show that globally pesticide use is increasing.

Is there such a thing as sustainable use of pesticides?

As with most industries, technology may hold the answers to creating a world in which chemical pesticides are used sustainably. But traditional methods can also help. When it comes to technology, a more targeted approach could help to avoid chemicals contaminating land, water supplies, and reduced biodiversity.

Drones could become a major contributor. Using drones, it is possible to accurately target individual crops with the pesticides they need to survive. This can avoid overspill, reducing the risk of affecting plants that don’t need pesticides, as well as reducing the amount of chemicals that end up in the soil, and subsequently water supplies.

Another aspect where technological change could be useful is vertical farming. Not only can it reduce the physical footprint of farms, it can improve efficiency — especially when in terms of pesticide use. But whilst could be part of the answer, technology cannot be the sole solution.

For thousands of years, humans have introduced insects, animals and funguses into agricultural settings for crop protection. The same could happen today. 

Through the introduction of specific species, we can not only reduce the use of chemical pesticides, we can also help to make sure that crops can be grown at the scale needed to feed an increasing global population.

Beyond this, chemical companies may need to produce less harmful chemicals that are more efficient too. It was only half a century ago that we were spraying crops with DDT.

To keep on top of bugs becoming resistant to chemicals, innovation needs to occur. But companies will need to go further than efficiencies, especially as more people become increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of the food they eat. Chemical pesticides need to be proven to be safe, ecological and effective.

Can organic feed the world?

Some environmentalists claim that it’s possible to fully meet the world’s needs through organic farming alone. The issue here is that organic farming produces, on average, lower crop yields than industrial farming methods which use chemical pesticides.

There are some examples that do, however, point the way to the future. India has been using modern farming techniques — particularly those using pesticides — to enable it to increase yields to feed a huge and growing total population.

The Indian state of Sikkim, however, is undergoing a radical experiment using only organic farming to drive the economy, and improve the lives of people in the region. Overall health has increased in the state. However, there have been some complaints that output has decreased. Despite this, the state won a UN award just last week for the progress made.

The Sikkim experiment was on the whole successful, with the Indian government subsequently pumping $119million to spread organic farming across the country. Since then, demand for organic produce has increased. Not only is an example for India, it is an example that should be explored across the globe.

Another aspect of food production that could, and most likely will, be transformed is through the increase in vegetarianism and veganism. We now know that globally we need to reduce the amount of farmed meat produced — see the warnings made by a University of Oxford-led research report released last week. If more people choose to eat less meat, there will be more land to grow organic beans, pulses, fruits and vegetables, which will in turn reduce the number of chemical pesticides. Even if everyone went vegetarian, we would still need some pesticides to ensure lasting crop health.

Ultimately, if we are to meet increasing demands for food, we need to change the way we eat as well as the way we farm.

Mixed use agriculture: a realistic future?

Chemical pesticides are always going to be controversial, much like GM foods and vaccinations. But the reality of our situation — an increasing population with increasing demands — will mean that they are always going to play a part in global food production.

With more efficient organic farming, greater use of technology, technological innovation within the chemical sector, and cultural change, the worries over the future of food production could, in some part at least, be reduced.

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