A recent news article on the pesticide Dicamba reminded me of our unparalleled ability to blind ourselves to reality, and to forget what what we once knew. Agriculture in America continues on its treadmill to oblivion, to its inevitable disasters from pests toughened by herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, fungicides, antimicrobials, and the rest of the chemical industry’s profitable arsenal.
What in the world am I talking about? Isn’t American agriculture the envy of the world? High productivity per acre? High profitibility per acre? Not really. Nature abides, and nature is stressed.
Consider this fact, an inconvenient fact. 1 From a global perspective, the percentage of crops lost to pests has not changed much in 50 years: 30% to 40% crop losses in spite of the vastly increased use of pesticides. Hmmmm... What is going on here?
Resistance - Our pests have genetic variability in their populations. Killing less than 100% of a pest leaves behind those who have some resistance to the pesticide. Over time, the target population becomes resistant to many pesticides. How long does this take? Sometimes only a few years, as with bactericides. This means that we always need a new chemical or microbe to replace one which has lost its efficacy.
Since the 1940’s we have conducted an experiment in producing super-pests, resistant to our chemicals. We have succeeded, even though that is not what we wanted.
What else have we done wrong?
Monoculture - We plant the same crops in the same places on an industrial scale, giving pests an ideal environment for multiplying.
Genetic monotony - We use only a small number of varieties, again making them better targets for pests.
Climatic stretch - We plant crops in places not naturally suited, requiring more artificial support. Example: cotton in California, pesticide-heavy.
Cosmetics - We require “perfect” fruit in our stores, again requiring more chemicals.
Poor pesticide regulation - We accept industry data, fail to monitor the real-world impacts of pesticide use, ignore complaints of pesticide drift to non-target farms, and pretend that resistance is inevitable.
So, what do we need to do?
Resistance - Make the potential for development of resistance a major factor in managing pesticide use.
Crop rotation - Plant multiple rotations of crops, to replenish soil nutrients, reduce erosion, and starve pests between crops.
Biodiversity - Bring back cultivation of many species, bringing variety to stores and again making it harder for the pests.
Climatic appropriateness - Plant crops where they will thrive, not on marginal land.
Cosmetics - Prohibit cosmetic pesticide use altogether. We can get used to spots on apples again.
Strong pesticide regulation - Suspicion of adverse impacts, including real-world reports, should allow an administrative order to suspend pesticide use. The burden of proof has to be on pesticide manufacturers, not on the regulators.
These recommendations will favor small farms over large corporate farming. Revitalizing farming communities would be a good thing. Will it happen soon? Not at the Federal level, with a regulation-averse White House and an anti-EPA head of EPA. Progress will have to come at the state and local level, from the people who know how to farm properly, wanting to get off the pesticide treadmill. Not just organic farmers, but also wise farmers.
Once, in the early years of the environmental movement, we knew these things. We tried to make them happen. It is not all about profit. It is about moving back from agricultural suicide toward agricultural health. Our time will come.
(1) Centenary Review, Crop Losses to Pests, E.-C. Oerke, Institute for Plant Diseases, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn, Nusssallee 9, D-53315 Bonn, Germany, published in Journal of Agricultural Science (2006), 144, 31-43. [http://www.http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.657.5813]