Study warns of conventional pesticide toxicity while urging organic alternatives
24 Feb 2023 --- Ambitions of the European Green Deal to halve pesticide use by 2030 have resulted in raising organic options as promising natural pesticide alternatives. However, the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) has warned of “ecological trade-offs implied by an increase of organic agriculture,” such as increased pesticide use as greater quantities of organic fertilizer being used across larger areas of land are needed to maintain the current level of productivity.
In response, IFOAM Organics Europe, the umbrella organization for organic agriculture in Europe, commissioned GLOBAL 2000 to investigate these claims, finding synthetic pesticides highly toxic compared to their organic counterparts.
The evaluation, published in the journal Toxins, found that over half (55%) of the 256 active substances in mostly synthetic pesticides permitted in conventional agriculture carry health or environmental hazard warnings. In comparison, of the 134 natural, active substances permitted in organic agriculture, only 3% have similar warnings.
Sixteen percent of conventional pesticides carried warnings regarding possible harm to unborn children, suspected carcinogenicity or acute lethal effects. Organic pesticides have none of these warnings.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considers it appropriate to set health-based guidance values for the acceptable intake of almost all (93%) of conventional pesticide substances, compared to only 7% of organic.
“It’s now clear that synthetic active substances allowed in conventional farming are way more hazardous and problematic than natural active substances approved in organic farming,” Jan Plagge, president of IFOAM Organics Europe, says.
The EU’s proposed pesticide cuts have come under fire as the ongoing invasion of Ukraine perpetuates Europe’s food crisis. Agricultural co-operatives argue that targeted use of pesticides is essential to secure a resilient food supply.
Organics touted as robust solution
However, the authors of the study argue that organic alternatives to synthetic pesticides will reduce toxic applications and provide a steadfast safeguard capable of maintaining food security.
“Organic farms focus on preventive measures such as using robust varieties, sensible crop rotations, maintaining soil health and increasing biodiversity on the field to avoid external inputs,” says Plagge.
“This is why on around 90% of farmland (especially in arable farming), no pesticides are used, not even natural substances. Nevertheless, if pests get out of hand, beneficial insects, microorganisms, pheromones, or deterrents are organic farmers’ second choice.”
Lili Balogh, president of Agroecology Europe, agrees.
“The implementation of the Farm to Fork strategy and the Biodiversity strategy with its pesticide reduction targets is essential to establish resilient agroecological food systems in Europe,” she says.
“With preventive and natural measures in crop protection, such as species and variety diversity, small-scale farming structures, and no synthetic pesticides, we create a sustainable agricultural and food system that survives crises well.”
Leveraging microorganisms as pesticides
Most active substances in organic pesticides are themselves organisms, notes Helmut Burtscher-Schaden, a biochemist at GLOBAL 2000 and lead author of the study.
“The differences we found are as significant as they are unsurprising when one takes a closer look at the origin of the respective pesticide active substances,” he says.
“While around 90% of the conventional pesticides are of chemical-synthetic origin and underwent screening programs to identify the substances with the highest toxicity (and thus highest efficacy) against target organisms, the majority of the natural active ingredients are not even ‘substances’ in the strict sense, but living microorganisms.”
These microorganisms, the active substances of organic pesticides, will not receive toxic labeling.
“These make up 56% of the pesticides approved in organic farming. As natural soil inhabitants, they do not have hazardous substance properties.”
Jennifer Lewis, executive director of the International Biological Manufacturers Association (IBMA), urges further natural crop protection products to become available.
“We need to speed up the approval process for biological control so these products are available for all European farmers,” she says. “This will support the transition to a more sustainable and biodiversity-friendly food system outlined in the European Green Deal.”
EU proposals for pesticide reduction caused an uproar among Dutch farmers, who protested across the country last year in various demonstrations, including dumping manure, fires on highways and clashes with police.
In related news, As the EU marches toward its sustainability and green goals, similar studies and analyses are forming the scaffolding around the construction of a greener EU. The EFSA yesterday released its recommendations for changes to caged chicken policies ahead of broad legislative changes to animal welfare laws slated for later this year, following a similar report on pig welfare.
By James Davies
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