Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Carl Pierer.
Earlier this year, STOA published a study on the future of crop protection. This study was carried out in the context of a growing world population and the resulting need to improve food productivity per hectare. The overall objective was to present an overview of crop protection options for European farmers, which might enable them to work sustainably while securing food production, preserving biodiversity and supporting their incomes.
As a follow-up to this study, STOA commissioned an analysis of the cost of alternative crop protection practices for the major field and garden crops in the EU‑27, including cereals, vegetables, grapes, olives and citrus fruits. The Lead Panel Member for the initial study, as well as for the follow-up, was Herbert Dorfmann (EPP, Italy), a STOA Panel member.
No one size-fits-all
The study aimed at providing a clear picture of which practices are economically most attractive in the different EU Member States. To do so, it identified four clusters of Member States as a function of both average crop protection cost and dominant type of plant production:
- Consisting predominantly of central European countries, this cluster has average crop protection costs and general field cropping (arable crops other than cereals, oilseed and protein crops, e.g. potato, sugar beet, onion, vegetables), as the dominant type of plant production.
- Consisting mainly of southern European countries, this cluster shares the characteristics of the first, but in addition olives and wine also figure prominently in their plant production.
- Consisting of mostly northern and eastern European countries, this cluster has low crop protection costs and an important production of cereals, oilseed and protein crops.
- The final cluster of largely north-western European countries has high crop protection costs and general field cropping.
While the EU’s agricultural sector is very diverse in crop specialisation, farm size distribution, labour availability and cost of operation, the members of each of these clusters have comparable agricultural characteristics and are likely to experience comparable effects when adopting and implementing alternative crop protection strategies.
Alternative practices in focus
The costs were estimated for the following seven alternative practices, drawn from the previous study:
1. Mechanical techniques
Mechanical techniques refer to replacing (part of the) chemical weed control by mechanical weed control. The cost varies from crop to crop and the differences between Member States are large. Because mechanical weeding cannot remove all the weeds, some crops require up to 150 hours of additional manual labour per hectare. Between Member States, the costs vary, because of differences in the cost of labour. Innovative methods with sensors allow for more precise weeding and could, in time, reduce the number of hours of manual weeding required.
2. Plant breeding
Disease and crop pest resistance can be improved through plant breeding, which decreases the need to apply plant protection products (PPPs) against specific diseases or pests. The cost is low for the farmer, with potential economic benefits if new varieties are used correctly. However, in crops such as olives, grapes and citrus fruit, it takes a long time for new varieties to become widely effective, as replanting cycles last between 25 and 40 years.
An example of biocontrol is using natural predators to control insects that threaten a crop. These measures are standard in greenhouse horticulture. In uncontrolled outdoor settings this is more complex and costly.
4. Induced resistance
Costs for this type of practice are particularly hard to estimate, as the vast majority of the products have no proven efficacy. Experts indicate that in balanced systems, where all aspects are under control, they will likely have limited effects.
5. Applying ecological principles to increase biodiversity
Biodiversity can be increased in many ways. The study estimates the cost for several options. However, for whole systems that increase biodiversity, such as strip cropping and agroforestry, little data is available about the cost and benefits.
6. Precision agriculture
Precision agriculture ranges from simple measures – using global navigation satellite systems, such as the EU’s Galileo, for steering guidance – to using sensors to identify diseases. The cost and benefits vary widely and the benefits do not always outweigh the cost for the farmer.
7. Green PPPs
The cost of green PPPs depends on their efficacy. Many products have proven to be effective, but the costs are determined by the number of applications required. Some green PPPs are already widely used and have proven to be a good alternative.
Challenges to implementation
A specific challenge for farmers is to integrate several alternative practices in order to reduce their synthetic pesticide use as much as possible. Most individual practices require training and that is even more the case for combining different practices. Practices such as plant breeding and mechanical weeding require little to no training. Biocontrol, induced resistance and green pesticides require a minimum of training in the field. The application of ecological principles also requires knowledge and repeated field sessions for demonstration and advice. Precision agriculture requires a broad availability and knowledge of machinery and information technology, besides agronomy and soil science. EU facilities such as the Farm Advisory System (FAS) and the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) could support training, especially for small and family farms.
Finally, given the large diversity of the EU’s agricultural sector, a future challenge could be to put forward policy options for the clusters of Member States identified, and even within the clusters, as to what combination of practices would be most effective for reduction in use of PPPs, while at the same time being economically promising.
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