Pesticides are chemicals used to kill harmful organisms, or pests. Pesticide is an umbrella term for many different types of chemical – they are named according to their action. For example, Insecticides are used to control insects, herbicides kill plants and fungicides control fungal issues. Although pesticides are needed to protect crops, they can also have a detrimental effect on both the environment and human wellbeing. It is generally accepted that pesticide use should be reduced to a level that still allows crop growth, but ensures the risks are reduced significantly. Here we will outline some of the main methods to reduce pesticide use in farming. From moving to less toxic pesticides to rejecting man-made pesticides entirely, there are lots of options.
Using less hazardous pesticides
Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce the harm to humans and the environment is to use a less toxic pesticide – from switching from a highly toxic pesticide to a slightly less toxic type is the simplest way to reduce the risks significantly.
Humans in contact with the pesticides must also wear the appropriate protective equipment whilst the correct waiting times before harvest must be observed. It is, however, recognized that this may be impractical in some countries – various factors such as lack of education and lack of protective equipment are at play here.
Agronomic practice incorporation
Agronomic practice refers to procedures that are included to improve the quality of soil, optimize water usage and improve conditions generally. This will ensure the growth of disease-free crops and reduce the accumulation of pests. Crop rotation and suitable nutrition are particularly important here. Precision agriculture – the correct amount of pesticide in the pest hotspots, for instance – should also play a role.
Grow resistant crops
Crops vary in susceptibility to pests and disease. They also vary in their ability to deal with competition from weeds. Selecting the correct crops for local conditions is vital in pest management. Using resistant varieties that have been modified genetically to be poisonous to specific insects, combined with rotating non-susceptible crops, can significantly reduce pests in an area.
Bio-control refers to the use of pathogens (bacteria, viruses or any disease-causing microorganism), natural predators or parasites as a mode of pest control. Pheromone insect traps can also be used. It can be an effective alternative to pesticides – one species acts as a biological control agent and controls the population of the pest species. Since many pests are becoming resistant to insecticides bio-control is great method of controlling pests. It is not a new method either, it has been used for centuries. Bio-control methods were utilized in California by citrus farmers in the 1880’s. They introduced the Australian vedalia beetle to control the population of cottony cushion scales – to great effect.
The use of man-made pesticides, which can result in the total eradication of the pests, also has the negative effect of reducing the food supply of the pests’ natural predators – this compromises a vital component of system resilience. It should be the goal to manage pest populations whilst ensuring that natural predation functions in a balanced manner and crop damage is at the lowest level possible.
Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
IPM is an environmentally-sensitive approach to pest management. In this system pesticides are only used when required. IPM is not a single method but an integrative approach – it is tailored to the specific needs of a site rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Good agronomic practices, effective pest identification and monitoring and effective biological pest control are key characteristics of IPM.
Agroecology refers to the consideration of ecological and social principles in the management of sustainable agroecosystems. It particularly concentrates on appreciating the relationship between plants, animals, humans and the environment and tries to maintain the natural balance that exists in an ecosystem. There are no fixed techniques. However, the aim is to capitalize on biodiversity to enhance farming processes.
Organic farming is another option – it uses techniques much like those in IPM and Agroecology. However, man-made pesticides can not be used as with these approaches. Organic farming standards are particularly strict and only specific natural substances, biopesticides, are allowed to deal with pests and prevent disease. Naturally occurring pesticides have low toxicity and include spearmint oil and citronella.