(Beyond Pesticides, July 11, 2018) Ecologically-based farming systems contain far fewer pests and generate much higher profits than their conventional, chemical-based counterparts according to research published in the journal PeerJ earlier this year by scientists at South Dakota State University and the Ecdysis Foundation. The study supports calls to reshape the future of agriculture, as ‘regenerative’ farms, which avoid tillage and bare soil, integrate livestock, and foster on-farm diversity. These farms are found to represent an economically viable alternative to overly simplified, pesticide and fertilizer-dependent cropping systems. Given the study’s focus on corn cropping systems, such a shift is possible for thousands of farmers throughout the United States.
Researchers looked at roughly 75 fields on 18 farms, measuring the organic matter in the soil, insect pest populations, corn yield as well as profit. Farms using pesticide treatments, which in corn fields is represented primarily by the use of neonicotinoid-coated seeds, had 10x higher pest levels than regenerative farms. As noted in the study, pest populations are a function of the biodiversity within the crop field. Biodiveristy increased on regenerative farms not only because farmers sprayed fewer pesticides, but because they also allowed more plants to grow in between rows. More plants lead to higher numbers of predatory insects and increased competition for pests, while conventional farms mistakenly attempt to simplify the ecosystem by replacing this diversity with pesticides. Lower levels of biodiversity, however, leads to fewer predators, less competition for crop pests like aphids, and the rapid development of pesticide resistance which facilitates pest outbreaks.
While many in the agrichemical industry may point to the fact that regenerative farms produced 29% less corn than conventional farms, profit, the most important aspect of any business, was 78% higher from regenerative farms. Researchers linked this to a number of factors. First, conventional farms spent a significant amount of their money (32%) on outside inputs, with the most expensive costs being fertilizer and seed, which often comes at a premium price from agrichemical companies because it is either genetically engineered or coated in neonicotinoid insecticides. Second, while regenerative farms spent comparable less on seed and fertilizer (12%), they also benefited by receiving an organic premium, selling their corn directly to consumers, or extracting additional value out of their field, such as by grazing it with livestock. Ultimately, scientists found that on-farm profit correlated most closely not with yields, but with the amount of organic matter in the soil of the field.
This research has important implications for farmers. ‘Following the money’ when it comes to food production indicates that there should be less of a focus on yield, and more of a focus on enhancing soil biology and biodiversity on farms. In a report published last year by the United Nations, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, PhD, confirmed that industry arguments about the need for conventional pesticides to increase food production are not accurate. “It is a myth,” said Dr. Elver. “Using more pesticides has nothing to do with getting rid of hunger. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we are able to feed nine billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.” In 2016, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems released a report “From Uniformity to Diversity,” calling for an end to the industrial agricultural model. The report notes, “The mismatch between the potential of agroecology to improve food systems outcomes, and its potential to generate profit for agribusinesses, may explain why it has been so slow to make its way onto the global political agenda.”
As a 2014 study published by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found, organic agriculture can and must be the method used to feed the world in the future. The organic industry is the food production system most prepared to foster the transition needed to see this come to fruition, and Beyond Pesticides is doing all it can to ensure it continues to grow while retaining and building consumer trust in the organic label. The success of organic in the U.S. has been driven by ecologically-based farms that focus on fostering biodiversity, limiting external inputs, improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and using integrated holistic approaches to managing pests, weeds, and disease. To learn more about why organic is the right choice, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Agriculture program page. And for more information on the dangers neonicotinoid coated seeds pose to pollinators and our environment, see and share Beyond Pesticides’ new video, “Seeds that Poison.”
Beyond Pesticides opposes any provisions in the Farm Bill that amend the standard setting procedures of the federal organic law and believes that no improvements are worth the damage that can be done to the standard setting process and public trust in the organic seal in the marketplace. Beyond Pesticides is urging that conferees in House-Senate Farm Bill conference committee over the next weeks to eliminate amendments that change any aspect of organic standard setting under the Organic Foods Production Act (OPFA).
The Farm Bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 2, is a direct attack on: organic standard setting; the authority of local governments to restrict toxic pesticides; and, the protection of farmworkers, endangered species, and the environment. Now, the Senate is getting ready to pass a bill that opens the door to an attack on organic. While the Senate train is speeding down the track, it is important to keep these damaging provisions out of the final (conference) bill.
Protect Organic Standards. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) gives the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) broad authority and responsibility to ensure organic integrity. The House version of the Farm Bill contains provisions that will give USDA greater direct and indirect power to allow products and practices that were not intended to be a allowed in organic – hydroponics, poultry houses without real access to the outdoors, and dairy operations without meaningful pasture. The Senate bill opens up the dangerous possibility of a change to the organic standard setting process. There should be no changes to the process that establishes organic standards in order to protect the meaning and value of organic in the marketplace.
The Farm Bill should not:
- Change definitions that open OFPA to new interpretations of its core standard setting practices, which ensure rigorous review of synthetic substances in organic production and processing;
- Permit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sidestep the NOSB in allowing toxic post-harvest handling substances (sanitizers) to be used in organic production;
- Change the classification of types of people who may be appointed to the NOSB by adding employees of farmers, handlers, and retailers; and
- Force consideration of allowing the use of products in organic that are subject to weaker standards of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Farm Bill should also not contain provisions that:
- Amend the federal pesticide law to preempt local governments from restricting pesticide use on private property within their jurisdictions;
- Exempt the use of pesticides from the Endangered Species Act, effectively dooming hundreds of endangered species to extinction and making it legal to kill any endangered species with a pesticide at almost any time;
- Eliminate litigation as a remedy when pesticide decisions threaten endangered species;
- Eliminate all protections under the Clean Water Act when toxic pesticides are sprayed directly into rivers and streams;
- Enact the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, providing long-term funding to EPA for expedited processing of pesticide approvals, without accompanying measures to ensure that farmworkers and other pesticide applicators are safe;
- Weaken restrictions on the use of the highly toxic ozone deplete, methyl bromide; and
- Give states the authority to delay federal restrictions.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.