Pesticide free - good for bees



Getting farmers to switch to organic farming is hard. Could giving up pesticides while still being able to use synthetic fertilisers help them to make the transition?
This content was published on May 2, 2024 - 09:00
10 minutes

Three years ago, pesticides took centre stage in Swiss political discourse. Under the country?s direct democracy system, citizens had the opportunity to vote for a complete ban on the use of pesticides and make the Alpine nation a 100% organic-farming oasis. However, when the votes were counted in June 2021, the pesticide initiative failed to win a majority, with only 40% in favour. The Swiss people were not ready for a revolution just yet. 

But a quiet revolution was already under way. Since 2019, the Swiss Association of Farmers Practising Integrated Agriculture (IP-Suisse), a sustainable farming movement with a membership of about 18,500, has offered a 30% premium for member farmers who grew wheat without resorting to pesticides but did not go organic. This includes no restrictions on the use of fertilisers. The price premium of the scheme, among the first of its kind in Europe, is mainly supported by Switzerland?s largest supermarket chain, Migros. The latter sells this wheat under its own TerraSuisse label.

The Swiss government is also encouraging non-organic but pesticide-free farming. In 2023, it committed to reducing the harmful environmental effects of pesticides by half by 2027. To achieve this target, the government has restricted the use of hazardous chemicals and introduced direct payments to farmers who voluntarily adopt pesticide-reduced and pesticide-free but non-organic cultivation. These payments can range from CHF650 ($712) per hectare of wheat to CHF1,400 per hectare of rapeseed. 

?It is not about enforcing a ban but giving farmers the option to do it if it makes sense to them and if consumers and taxpayers are willing to compensate them,? says Robert Finger, a professor of agricultural economics and policy at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. 
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IP-Suisse estimates that in 2022 the share of pesticide-free (but non-organic) wheat cultivation of the total acreage of Swiss wheat was about 15%. Depending on the extent of yield loss involved, modelling showsExternal link that by 2027 adoption of this kind of farming by farmers could potentially make up between 41-79% of total arable land in Switzerland. 

?The introduction of pesticide-free food as a third product category would provide consumers with a wider product range. The products have a higher level of sustainability compared to conventional products and are less price-intensive than organic products,? states a studyExternal link published in 2024 that polled nearly 600 German consumers. The survey shows consumers were willing to pay between 38.3% to 93.7% more for such hybrid products. 

Pesticide exposure has been linked to various forms of cancer, neurological disorders like Parkinson?s and Alzheimer?s disease, impaired child development and reproductive problems. According to the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment, concentrations of pesticides in groundwater do not exceed the maximum limit of 0.1 micrograms per litre in 98% of monitoring stations. But the legacy of pesticide use can linger in the environment for decades afterwards due to the chemicals released after degradation known as metabolites. This includes metabolites of banned pesticides like atrazine and dichlobenil. Nationwide, every third monitoring site shows metabolite concentrations in excess of the maximum limit of 0.1 μg/L. 
Problems with implementation

Pesticide-free cultivation is not without risks in yield loss even with the use of fertilisers. In temperate regions, where most of the studies have been done, the average yield loss has been estimated to be about 6%. But the loss could be higher in unfavourable production locations. 

?If it works for farmers and consumers in a specific region, that?s great. But the situation is different in tropical zones where pests are vigorous and crops can be destroyed overnight,? says Virginia Lee, a spokesperson for CropLife International, a lobby group that represent companies that manufacture plant protection products. 

According to Lee, the focus should be on growing as much food as possible on available land sustainably. She advocates striking the right balance between productivity, climate and biodiversity that is appropriate for each agroclimatic zone. 

Swiss-based agricultural giant Syngenta, a member of CropLife International, agrees. The multinational does not want to eliminate pesticides from the farmer?s toolbox altogether. 

?There has been a lot of innovation in chemistry to make pesticides more efficient. We?ve gone from applying kilograms per hectare to grams per hectare and developments in pesticide application technology are also further helping reduce use,? says Ioana Tudor, Global Head of Crop Protection Marketing at Syngenta.

The Swiss farming community is also on the fence regarding the practical aspect of transitioning to pesticide-free cultivation. 
Despite signing up to the IP-Suisse ladybird label, this Swiss farm campaigned against abandoning all agrochemicals during the runup to the controversial vote in June 2021. Keystone//Peter Schneider

?This approach is interesting in theory. In practice, however, there are some problems with consistent implementation,? says Swiss Farmers? Union spokesperson Sandra Helfenstein. ?For example, there is not a good biological control method for every disease or pest in arable farming. This is the reason why organic farming in arable crops is not getting off the ground.  Fertilisation is the smaller problem here?.
Insufficient protection for the environment

While manufacturers of agrochemicals and farmers are not fully on board with the pesticide-free trend, organic-farming supporters feel the middle path is not enough to protect the environment.

?The problem with fertilisers is not the same as those caused by pesticides. They affect the environment in different ways,? says Rapha?l Charles of the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). ?Fertiliser use releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas.  Application also causes changes in the life cycle of many organisms, including flora, and eutrophication of non-agricultural zones?. 

Charles is in favour of other alternatives to synthetic fertilisers, such as using nitrogen fixing plants or recycling organic waste in digesters to produce compost or digestates.

?Yes, we get less yield in organic farming, but is conventional agriculture not overproduction when we consider the soil, environment and planet at our disposal?? he says.
Money talks

Ultimately the success of pesticide-free farming hinges on financial support. The yield may be more than that of purely organic farming, but it is still considerably less than it would be if farmers could use all the tools at their disposal, including pesticides. For example, farm trials carried out between 2019 and 2021 showed yields of 7.5 tonnes per hectare for conventional wheat production compared to 6.5 tonnes with the pesticide-free, non-organic method. Investing in mechanical control of weeds also requires farmers to put money up front. They also have to treat the field more often, hire more labour and spend more money on fuel for farm machinery. 

?If using no pesticides was profitable on its own, then farmers would be doing it already,? says Finger, who recently published a review on European pesticide-free initiatives in the journal NatureExternal link. ?Support from industry and government is needed to encourage a long-term commitment to change the production system. The price markup and government direct payments give farmers the confidence to switch.?

Like Switzerland, the German government started compensating farmers that forego synthetic pesticides from 2023. Smaller private initiatives have also sprung up, such as the KraichgauKorn cereal cooperative in Baden W?rttemberg, Germany, and in Brittany, France, where a few cooperatives have launched a ?pesticide-free? label for tomatoes. 

The appetite for such voluntary ?middle path? initiatives is growing in Europe. However, the scrapping of the European Union?s Green Deal proposal earlier this year to halve the use of pesticides by 2030, following farmer protests, has shown that a top-down ban is unlikely to work. 

?It is one option to start removing one or other input, fertilisers or pesticides, according to the context, and then start looking at the whole system later on. It could be a transition phase that could work in the current political climate,? says organic farming expert Charles.

Edited by Virginie Mangin/gw

Michael Bush:
The important thing is any transition should be gradual enough that millions of people don't starve and the farmers don't go out of business.


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