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Plant protection products: Friend or foe of future farming?

Written by Lieve Van WOENSEL with Richelle BOONE.

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pcfruit / Fotolia

There is a problem: we need to feed 11 billion people by the end of the century, but the growth of agriculture is limited by planetary sustainability boundaries. Since the increase of land use is one of the key drivers for the loss of biodiversity, increasing crop yield could be a solution for meeting the demand. Good crop protection measures are vital for this purpose, and especially the use of plant protection products (PPPs) – insecticides, herbicides and fungicides – has proven to be very helpful in increasing efficiency. However, a strong public concern about PPPs is that they might have a negative impact on health and the environment. Up to now, European legislation has been characterised by an overall wish to reduce the use of PPPs. The question is whether that can be done while at the same time maintaining or increasing crop yield? Do scientists share this public concern? And are there any reliable alternatives to PPPs?

The STOA workshop ‘Farming without agro-chemicals’, which took place on 6 March 2019, gave participants an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the impact of PPPs on food production, and the perspectives of all the different stakeholders in the discussion on PPPs were explored. The event resulted from a proposal submitted to STOA by Mairead McGuinness, first Vice-President of the European Parliament (EPP, Ireland) and a member of the EP Special Committee on pesticides. Mairead McGuinness had earlier requested a STOA study on precision farming, which was published in 2016. That study identified opportunities and concerns regarding precision agriculture in the EU, including for instance the possibility for precision farming to contribute to food security and sustainability.

Another member of the EP Special Committee on pesticides, Anthea McIntyre (ERC, UK), chaired the meeting. In her opening address, she stressed the need for an evidence-based approach in the debates on PPPs, stating that ‘science should come first, last and always in deciding the safety and effectiveness of PPPs’. Anthea McIntyre also underlined that controversy should never be a reason for STOA to shy away from preparing scientific advice on a certain topic. Three professors from the Biosystems Department of the University of Leuven prepared a scientific assessment at STOA’s request, as a background document to spark and support discussion. The gathered MEPs, scientists, representatives of a wide range of organisations, students and interested public found plenty of opportunity to engage in this discussion after six panellists representing different perspectives presented their views.

©KULeuven

First, the three professors from the University of Leuven presented their background document. Wannes Keulemans, Head of the Laboratory of Fruit Breeding and Biotechnology of the department, explained that it would be very difficult to produce enough food for 11 billion people without using PPPs. Reductions in the use of PPPs are, however, possible in those cases in which the amount used is high. It should be clear however that such reductions do not necessarily benefit biodiversity: as Professor Keulemans pointed out, many scientific studies do not report a direct and clear relation between biodiversity and PPPs. Other factors, such as land use change, are much more important drivers for biodiversity loss. He therefore stressed that possible environmental benefits of alternative agricultural systems are cancelled out if these systems require significantly more land – because of lower yield – in order to meet the increasing food demand.

Dany Bylemans, who, in addition to working at the University of Leuven, is also the Director of a research centre for fruit cultivation (pcfruit), continued the presentation by stating that all PPPs are by definition bad for human health and the environment. That is, the substances were created to kill. However, chemical PPPs are not by definition more toxic than natural PPPs (‘bio-pesticides’) and, as long as they are used in the correct way, the health risks PPPs create are comparable or even lower than the risks we are willing to take in everyday life. Consumer perception and scientific opinion about PPPs thus differ widely, he argued. Whereas consumers are mostly worried about food additives and PPPs, scientists are more concerned about microbial contamination and nutritional imbalance. Professor Bylemans alerted the audience to the issue that banning PPPs might have an undesirable consequence in this last respect: food perceived as healthy could become too expensive for lower-income classes, enhancing for instance the risk of obesity. In his view, improved risk communication should equip consumers with a more balanced image of PPPs, he added.

To conclude the presentation of the background document, the leader of the ‘Plant Health and Protection’ group at the University of Leuven, Barbara De Coninck, focused on three promising trends for reducing the use of PPPs. The first is to replace chemical PPPs with biological ones, such as natural enemies of the target organisms. Another option would be to opt for resistant cultivars, for instance created by the genome editing technique CRISPR-CAS. Smart farming techniques, such as remote sensing by drones and precision spraying, complete the list. All these trends could be easily incorporated in the integrated pest management (IPM) scheme, which has been compulsory in the EU since 2014. IPM aims to lower risks for human health and the environment through precautionary measures and by using smart combinations of different farming techniques, including the use of natural PPPs.

After introducing the background document, three distinctive stakeholder perspectives on PPPs were explored. As a leader of a Europe-wide agricultural impact assessment programme for the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), Anne van Drunen Littel illustrated the conventional agricultural viewpoint. She presented the results of an ECPA study that mapped the financial consequences for EU farmers when their toolbox will no longer contain certain PPPs. This study is complementary to environmental and health impact assessments. The study’s conclusion was that, on average, farmers would experience lower yields and higher production costs, underlining the need for good regulation, especially for those farmers that already struggle to make ends meet today.

Isabella Lang, Policy Analyst at the European umbrella organisation for organic food and farming, IFOAM EU, informed the audience about the position of organic farmers. Organic farming differs from conventional farming by allowing only the use of substances that are already naturally occurring in the specific biosystem. She highlighted that organic farming is not just about replacing inputs, but more about developing strategies. The practice is not the opposite of modern technology, Lang stated; instead, it combines tradition, innovation and science to realise its principles. Several other panellists pointed out that organic farming and IPM are actually quite similar in the techniques and strategies they apply to protect health and the environment. During her presentation, Isabella Lang outlined a couple of important and fundamental issues to consider during debate: Should agricultural systems be judged only on yield, or should we also consider inputs such as fertilisers and fossil energy? Could the increasing demand for food justify further intensification of agriculture, or should we focus more on solving problems such as access to food and food waste? And is organic food too expensive, or is conventional food in fact too cheap?

Challenging the attendees to contrast their convictions as citizens with their consumer desires, Marleen Onwezen, a Social Psychologist working at Wageningen Economic Research, delved into the topic of consumer perceptions. She tried in particular to explain why consumers do not necessarily choose products according to the ideals and principles they value as citizens. Many different factors go into decision-making, including irrational ones. Food innovations are, for instance, not always accepted by consumers, not even if they have proven to be beneficial and are considered safe by many scientists. However, Marleen Onwezen emphasised that, although consumers might be irrational in their choices, their behaviour is predictable. Good communication about food innovation and consulting consumers at the earliest stages in the development of new products or techniques could therefore enhance trust in new foods.

During the discussion following the panellists’ talks, workshop participants made many interesting contributions. Mairead McGuinness for instance expressed her concern for conventional farmers faced with uncertainty about their future, now that they see some of their tools disappearing. She wondered about the options for conventional farmers and about how the farmers’ perspective should be incorporated in the efforts towards solving sustainability challenges. Many participants shared this concern, and indicated that they take the interests of both conventional and organic farmers very seriously. In particular, the objective of spreading innovations to as many farmers and as quickly as possible was deemed important. This ties-in with another insight voiced by many attendees: organic and conventional agricultural systems should not be seen as being in competition. As Julie Girling (EPP, UK) stated: ‘I see them as an issue of consumer choice and as an issue of complementarity’. Furthermore, some participants urged that the scope of the discussion should be extended beyond PPPs.

In a wide-ranging and open discussion, panellists and members of the audience brought up a great variety of factors, issues and problems that should be taken into account in order to reach the connected aims of sufficient food production and sustainable agriculture development. Maria Heubuch (Greens/EFA, DE) brought up for instance the problem of food waste. Other factors like the use of animal products, food access, climate change and insect decline were also considered relevant to the debate, to name just a few examples. Keeping an eye on the role of agriculture in the complete food chain and the overall ecosystem was understood to be crucial in working towards sustainability.

To summarise, the overall conclusion of this fruitful exchange of thoughts was that we should stop thinking of conventional and organic agricultural practices as diametrically opposed, and start finding common ground, exchanging ideas, thinking of ways to communicate techniques to farmers, and working together towards a more sustainable agricultural system.

This workshop will be followed by a Scientific Foresight study on sustainable agriculture as decided by the STOA Panel in line with Mairead McGuinness’s initial proposal. This means that, in addition to a scientific analysis, societal concerns will also be investigated and will be taken into account in the formulation of options for courses of action at the EU policy level. As such, the study will go beyond the scope of the workshop summarised in this blog post. While relying on a well-balanced understanding of the current scientific consensus on the relevant topics, STOA, in its workshops and studies, is well aware of the fact that there exists, or may appear in the future, studies presenting a different view to the scientific findings reported. STOA fully respects these studies, and considers it of the utmost importance to welcome them with an open mind. Policy decisions take account of both scientific evidence and societal considerations, including the values, interests and concerns present in society. STOA therefore values all opinions on the use of PPPs and encourages a wide debate on the issue, hopefully supported and sharpened by the scientific evidence available for all to profit from.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 25 MEPs nominated by nine EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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