(Beyond Pesticides, January 3, 2011) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced the initial results of an experimental program in West Africa that reduces farmers’ use of pesticides and chemical inputs while increasing yields and income. The program, entitled the West African Regional Integrated Production and Pest Management Program, evaluated the use of ecological management versus conventional practices on vegetables, cotton, and grain crops in the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal. The evaluation shows dramatic decreases in pesticide usage, reduced environmental degradation, as well as increases in farmer income through higher yields and reduced inputs.
According to the FAO (which previously advocated for organic agriculture), the goals of the program, which is ongoing, are “building local farming capacity, improving food security and livelihoods, and raising awareness of negative externalities and positive alternatives.” These are accomplished through training farmers in what the FAO calls integrated production and pest management (IPPM) methods so that they can reduce toxic inputs and pollution while enhancing soil fertility and retaining more of their income. The particular methods of IPPM include reducing pesticide usage, soil building through incorporation of compost and manure and the planting of cover crops, careful monitoring of pests using biological controls only when needed, and the introduction of beneficial insects, such as pollinators. For more information on integrated pest management in the home and community, visit our IPM page.
The farmers were trained using a technique developed by the FAO called Farmer Field Schools, which consists of groups of about 25 farmers who are educated throughout the growing season in IPPM practices and decide as a group how best to farm their test plot. Each group divides their test plot in half, with one half being farmed with IPPM methods and the other according to commonly accepted practices in the community. From 2002 to 2009, there were over 80,000 farmers trained through these schools, with that number expected to be more than 100,000 at the start of the new year.
One of the outcomes of the program was a significant reduction in pesticide usage, as in the case of 80 surveyed vegetable farmers, whose use of commercial synthetic pesticides went from 3.5 liters per hectare to about a quarter of a liter per hectare after going through the training — a reduction of 92%, representing savings to the farmers of about $60(US) per hectare in pesticide expenses. The percentage of farmers in this survey who used toxic pesticides went from 97% to 12% after incorporating IPPM methods into their farming operations. This reduction in chemical usage through ecological practices was a priority of the program so that farmers would not “run the risk [of] being vulnerable to commercial pressures to use pesticides.”
In addition to pesticide reduction, the introduction of soil management schemes sought to reduce pollution from runoff of fertilizers and prevent the erosion of topsoil. This was accomplished through the incorporation of compost and manure into agricultural fields as natural fertilizers. Compost use by rice, cotton, and vegetable farmers in Benin increased by 260% through the training offered by the Farmer Field Schools. This represents great potential for preventing pollutants from fertilizer runoff from entering waterways and drinking water supplies.
The practices implemented by farmers who participated in the program resulted not only in a reduction of environmental degradation, but also a significant increase in farmer incomes. This occurred due to the increased yields that farmers experienced coupled with the increased net value of their products, due to minimized needs for expensive chemical inputs. In the case of the 80 surveyed vegetable farmers, the net value of their crops after having gone through the program increased by over $1000(US) per hectare. Additionally, figures from rice farmers in Senegal show that their yields increased by more than a ton per hectare using the more sustainable methods.
Previous research has shown that organic agriculture can be at least as equally productive as conventional, chemical-reliant systems. A collaborative study from 2005 involving the Rodale Institute, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and the University of Maryland, which evaluated organic versus conventional cropping systems over a 22 year period, showed equal yields for corn and soybeans, with the organic yields increasing after several years. Additionally, the study found that the organic production system requires 30% less energy. Perhaps more notably, a 2007 study from the University of Michigan reveals that in the developing world the use of organic production methods can dramatically increase the amount of food produced, doubling and sometimes tripling yields. Research such as this, coupled with further data from Rodale as well as the UN, effectively lay to rest the claim that organic agriculture cannot produce enough food to serve the world’s ever-growing population.
Beyond Pesticides is a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture through organic production systems. Food produced organically does not harm the natural environment and reduces the potential for harmful health effects that result from the use of toxic chemicals. Programs such as the FAO’s IPPM project demonstrate that sustainable food production systems, such as organic, truly are viable alternatives to industrial, chemically intensive agriculture and that toxic, expensive, and ecologically damaging pesticides are not necessary to grow bountiful food. These systems provide the path to a future where we can grow food while continuing to protect our natural resources and our collective health. To see our work in support of organics and to learn what you can do to help, visit our organic program page.