Pesticides and Food:It's not a black or white issue, Part 5

This is part five of our six-part series on the current state of pesticides.
Information about pesticides is ubiquitous online. Unfortunately, a balanced and nuanced discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of current pesticides is difficult to find. This series discusses the main concerns surrounding pesticides and illuminate the complexity and challenges involved in decision-making regarding current and future pesticide use.
This series contains six parts:
  • In Part 1, we explore why looking solely at pesticide use by weight does not fully illustrate how pesticide use has changed over time. Incorporating other factors is needed to gain a fuller understanding of how pesticide use has changed.
  • Part 2 explores changes in pesticide toxicity and environmental impact over time. We look at the range of toxicity and environmental impact among different pesticides and highlight where there is room for improvement.
  • In Part 3, we compare the toxicity of a pesticide whose toxicity is often debated on social media and the press – glyphosate – to other common pesticides to give context to a polarized issue.
  • Part 4 compares toxicity between common synthetic and organic pesticides and highlights the complexity and variability in pesticide options.
  • In Part 5, we provide an example of how organic farming can sometimes include less sustainable environmental practices.
  • Part 6 addresses the common concern that conventional produce contains unsafe levels of pesticide residues and the common belief that organic produce is safer and healthier.

Soil health―When synthetic pesticides are more sustainable than 'natural' organics

Most consumers believe organic farming avoids pesticides and prioritizes the health of the environment more than conventional farming. However, this is not necessarily the case. Pesticides used in organic farming are sometimes less effective than state-of-the-art, targeted synthetics. This can mean organic farmers sometimes have to use more pesticides and at a higher cost.

Anti-GMO activists in one county in California complained so much about glyphosate (Part 2 in this series addresses glyphosate; read the GLP’s GMO FAQ backgrounder on glyphosate for an extensive analysis of its potential health dangers) that the county switched to organic alternatives , but the alternatives required gardeners to use body suits and respirators during application because the organic substitutes caused eye irritation and respiratory problems. The alternatives were also less effective as glyphosate. And they were as much as sixteen times as expensive.

The inherent restrictions required in organic farming result in organic farmers sometimes having to use more toxic pesticides and less environmentally-friendly technology and farming practices.

5:

Soil health―When synthetic pesticides are more sustainable than ‘natural’ organics

Tillage is one example of organic farming being less sustainable than conventional farming. Tillage is a technique farmers use to prepare soil for a crop. It involves digging, stirring and overturning the soil. Tillage helps make it easier to plant crops and destroy weeds.

Illustration of a tractor and tilling machinery on a field.

However, tillage breaks down soil structure, significantly increases erosion, causes the soil to lose nutrients, reduces biodiversity of insects and animals in the soil and releases greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. It is definitely not the most sustainable farming practice. Conventional agriculture has more options to avoid tillage, and some GMO crops aid with no-till weed control, while organic agriculture still has to rely at least in part on tillage, even at the expense of sustainability.

Conventional agriculture can use herbicide-tolerant crops. These are crops that have been genetically engineered to tolerate specific herbicides, like glyphosate. The graph below shows that when using herbicide-tolerant crops, farmers do not need to rely on tillage as much as conventional farmers (data from the USDA Economic Research Service using data from the 2006 ARMS Phase II soybean survey). However, genetically engineered crops are by definition not available to organic farmers. Therefore, it has been more difficult for organic farmers to adopt no-till farming practices.

Graph showing the percentage of acres where conventional tillage, conservation tillage, and no-till practices on herbicide-tolerant and conventional soybeans in 2006.

The restrictions on organic farming, with the focus on being “natural,” do not allow for some modern improvements that could help increase sustainability, including the reduced use of tilling. While there is some adoption of a roller crimper for organic no-till, the adoption has been an uphill climb, failing to scale:

A graph showing the growth in no-till acreage versus organic acreage in U.S. agriculture from 1990 to 2010.

More recently, no-till adoption has continued to rise in many crops (data from the USDA):


Graph showing no-till adoption in selected crops (wheat, soybeans, corn, and cotton).

While organic acreage has been slow to increase (organic acreage data and overall cropland acreage data from the USDA):

Percentage of U.S. organic cropland acreage from 2011 to 2016.

The decisions surrounding optimal farming practices are complex and often do not fall easily into categories like organic versus conventional. In Part 6, the last article of this series, we explain why many consumers prefer organic produce over conventional produce based on inaccurate assu

mptions about the role of pesticides in organic and conventional farming.

Marc Brazeau contributed to this report.

Kayleen Schreiber is the GLP’s infographics and data visualization specialist. She researched and authored this series as well as creating the figures, graphs, and illustrations. Follow her at her website, on Twitter @ksphd or on Instagram @ksphd

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. He also is the editor of Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Marc served as project editor and assistant researcher on this series. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

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