Agroecology : the Alternative to Extensive Use of Pesticides

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

This post content, published by Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, and Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & Hazardous Substances & Wastes, is our abstract Part 3/4 of their Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food for the United Nations.

The report warnings of catastrophic consequences and blaming manufacturers for ‘systematic denial of harms’ and ‘unethical marketing tactics’ is shared by Damian Carrington alongside with report UNSR authors interview on The Guardian. Agroecology image credit national agroforestry center.


Today, hazardous pesticides are in excessive use, inflicting damage on human health and ecosystems around the world, and their use is poised to increase in the coming years. Safer practices exist and can be developed further to minimize the impacts of such excessive, in some cases unnecessary, use of pesticides that violate a number of human rights. A rise in organic agricultural practices in many places illustrates that farming with less or without any pesticides is feasible. Studies have indicated that agroecology is capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed the entire world population and ensure that they are adequately nourished.

The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it. Ironically, many of those who are food insecure are in fact subsistence farmers engaged in agricultural work, particularly in lower-income countries.

Agroecology, considered by many as the foundation of sustainable agriculture, replaces chemicals with biology. It is the integrative study of the ecology of the entire food system, encompassing ecological, economic and social dimensions. It promotes agricultural practices that are adapted to local environments and stimulate beneficial biological interactions between different plants and species to build long-term fertility and soil health.

The amount of pesticides needed to protect crops depends on the robustness of the farming system. If crops are cultivated in unsuitable locations, they tend to be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Over the past decades, diversity in farming systems has been greatly reduced in terms of crops and varieties grown in natural habitats. The result is a loss of ecosystem services like natural pest control through predators and a loss of soil fertility. Rather than encouraging resistance, crop breeding in industrial agriculture has focused on high-yielding varieties that respond well to chemical inputs but that are more susceptible to pests and diseases. As most seed companies are now owned by agrochemical companies, there is limited interest in developing robust varieties. In order to succeed with pesticide reduction, it is essential to reintroduce diversity into agriculture and move away from monocultures of single varieties.

In ecological farming, crops are protected from pest damage by enhancing biodiversity and encouraging the presence of natural enemies of pests. Examples include developing habitats around farms to support natural enemies and other beneficial wildlife or applying functional agrobiodiversity, using scientific strategies to increase natural enemy populations. Crop rotation and usage of cover crops also help protect the soil from various pathogens, suppress weeds and increase organic content, while more resistant crop varieties can help prevent plant disease.

Agroecological farming can help secure livelihoods for smallholder farmers and those living in poverty, including women, because there is no heavy reliance on expensive external inputs. If properly managed, biodiversity and efficient use of resources can enable smallholder farms to be more productive per hectare than large industrial farms (A/HRC/16/49).

Measuring success

Despite their widespread use, chemical pesticides have not achieved reduction in crop losses in the last 40 years. This has been attributed to their indiscriminate and nonselective use, killing not only pests but also their natural enemies and insect pollinators. Efficacy of chemical pesticides is also greatly reduced owing to pesticide resistance over time.

Such resistance is particularly likely and rapid in monoculture of genetically engineered crops. As a result, genetically engineered crops may create a cycle of entrapment for farmers, with herbicide-tolerant crops eventually requiring more herbicides to fight pest resistance. Farmers using genetically engineered seed are obliged to buy the pesticides that go along with it, benefiting the pesticide industry without considering the economic burden on famers or the cost to the environment. Farmers’ right to assess technologies such as genetically engineered crops and weigh these in the light of other possible alternatives has also been ignored under the assumptions of conventional economics. Indeed some argue that the development of alternatives has been undermined by the emphasis on investment in genetically engineered technologies.

Replacing highly hazardous pesticides with less hazardous pesticides is necessary and overdue but not a sustainable solution, as many pesticides initially considered relatively “benign” are later found to pose very serious health and environmental risks. Measuring the success of agroecology in comparison with industrial agricultural systems requires further research. Studies using short time frames and focusing on individual crop yields underestimate the potential long-term productivity of agroecological systems. Comparative studies are increasingly showing that diversified systems are advantageous and even more profitable when looking at total outputs, rather than specific crop yields. Aiming to build balanced and sustainable agroecosystems, agroecology is more likely to produce constant yields in the longer term owing to their greater ability to withstand climate variations and naturally resist pests.

Success must be calculated in terms other than economic profitability, and take into consideration the costs of pesticides on human health, the economy and the environment. Agroecology prevents direct exposure to toxic pesticides and helps improve air, soil, surface water and groundwater quality. Less energy intensive, agroecology can also help mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses and by providing carbon sinks.

Read and download the complete Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food A/HRC/34/48 on UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR On Human Rights & Toxics.

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