The way we farm is damaging our climate, our wildlife, our soils and our health. We can solve these interconnected crises by changing the way that we grow food and what we put on our plates.
The overuse of pesticides underpin this current damaging system of farming – they are a major part of what needs to change.
‘Pesticides’ are chemicals designed to kill insects and other pests (insecticides), fungal diseases (fungicides) and weeds (herbicides). The vast majority are used in farming to grow our food, but they are also used in our parks, schools and even our own gardens.
In farms they are being used on an vast scale. Farmers have become reliant on them and they’ve found their way into our food, our soils, our rivers and our wildlife.
Scientists increasingly believe there is no safe level of pesticides for humans to be exposed to. Even tiny amounts that the Government currently consider are safe, could be damaging to human health. There is growing evidence that pesticides become more harmful when combined, a phenomenon known as the cocktail effect. Some foods have been found to contain up to 14 different pesticides in a single item. Research conducted on human cells and tissues highlight that combined actions of pesticide mixtures including can lead to,:
A farm could be using dozens of different types of pesticides each year. However, little is known about their combined impact on wildlife and nature.
We are facing a catastrophic environmental breakdown with our precious insects and ecosystems disappearing right under our noses. Scientists widely agree that pesticides and intensive farming are a major part of this crisis. For example, the once most widely used insecticides, neonicotinoids, have caused untold damage to bees and other wildlife.
Herbicides are also damaging to nature as they reduce wildflowers and the wildlife that they sustain. The potential for fungicides to damage life within soil and degrade soil health, is of increasing concern. We need healthy soils to be able to grow enough food in the future. Soil also plays an important role in mitigating climate change by locking up carbon.
This generally damaging intensive farming system is driving much of the wider nature crisis and is playing a huge role in the climate crisis too.
Pesticides are at the heart of mainstream farming systems. What farmers grow and how they grow it have been specifically designed for high pesticide use aimed at increasing yields and little else. Think huge fields, growing huge volumes of limited types of crops on degraded soils.
These kinds of conditions increase the need for pesticides in the first place. Meanwhile pests and disease can quickly develop resistance meaning crops must be treated more and more often and new, more potent pesticides are eventually needed.
The result is farmers are trapped on a ‘pesticide treadmill’ at the mercy of an exploitative system which is monopolised by only a handful of giant chemical companies that have enormous lobbying power over our government.
Many farmers are now struggling. Many yields are plateauing despite more and more pesticides being required more often and market prices and uncertain trade deals make for a difficult future.
Banning individual pesticides (like neonicotinoids) isn’t the answer. History shows these come too late and are simply replaced with another pesticide.
Instead we need to urgently support farmers to fundamentally change how they farm. This is entirely possible without a reliance on pesticides, as organic farmers worldwide demonstrate. Using these greener farming approaches, known as agroecology, farmers aim to work with nature to create a more balanced system that doesn’t rely on pesticides.
We work directly with farmers on the ground to achieve this. Farmers can transform our farms and countryside into healthy ecosystems, capable of producing plentiful, high quality affordable food, with low emissions and abundant wildlife. But Government need to regulate, incentivise and support farmers to make this transition.
The report highlights the fact that multiple pesticides are sprayed on the food we eat and on our countryside without a true understanding of the impact on human health and wildlife. By putting the evidence and our key asks in front of government, we aim to influence changes to regulations and the latest National Action Plan on pesticides.
Programmes such as our Innovative Farmers enables farmers to trial solutions to their most pressing problems, without the use of pesticides. For example, farmers are trialling using sheep, rather than sprays, to reduce the impact of a pest of oil seed rape crops. Currently less than 1% of agricultural research funding goes straight to farmers: we will call for this to change to at least 10%.
In 2019, the ‘Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe’ report showed how it would be possible to provide a sufficient and healthy diet to a growing population using ecological farming - without the use of pesticides.
This year we will produce a UK model, showing how this method of farming can not only feed the population without relying on pesticides, but also tackle the growing issues of climate impacts and wildlife decline.