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Crop protection and fertilizer firms must prioritise sustainability issues

New report from Agrow assess the issue of sustainability in the agrochemicals sector

Use of agrochemical fertilisers and pesticides in the future is inseparable from the question of sustainability. In speculating as to how the sustainable use of agrochemicals will develop, it is worth looking at the current and future political and social landscape.

In the developed world, arable farming is already at a high level of intensity, with a high level of inputs. In general, regulations on agrochemical use are relatively strict and are enforced.

Particularly in Europe, the demands of consumers and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have led to politicians taking measures that go beyond prescribed regulatory requirements (e.g. the neonicotinoid insecticide ban). Consumers in the developed world expect their food to be free of chemical residues and expect their environment to be maintained rather than degraded.

It is likely, therefore, that any demand for increased productivity will have to be met without further negative impact on the environment. Therefore, the cost and complexity of registration of new chemical active ingredients and products will continue to rise, resulting in fewer new product introductions. At the same time, it seems likely that use of biopesticides and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) will continue to grow, aided by regulatory regimes that support these measures.

If the regulatory environment is to be made tougher for chemical pesticides, it will be important for any regulatory regimes and decisions to reflect the wider impacts on the ecosystem, and to avoid unintended consequences.

One example of the latter is provided in a 2016 study on the impact of the neonicotinoid ban on crop protection of oilseed rape in the UK. The ban started in 2013 and was intended to prevent harm to the bee population due to the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. In the years following the ban, there were serious crop losses due to damage from cabbage stem flea beetles and aphids.

These pests in turn developed resistance to the alternative insecticides (pyrethroids) used which led to further crop losses, lower yields and a reduction in in flowering crops available to foraging bees. The author concludes that the latter effect will lead to a reduction in the pollinator population – the exact opposite to the intention of the neonicotinoid ban.

So instead of a regulatory system which presents the binary choice of “banned” or “permitted up to a general application rate”, one could envisage a far more joined-up regime which assesses holistically the risks of such decisions.

Such a system could introduce much more carefully thought out and “smart” restrictions and permissions, which could, for instance, stipulate the introduction of habitat conservation measures, pollinator monitoring, IPM measures and resistance monitoring alongside limited, specific and localised use of a pesticide product.

Elsewhere in the developed world, the US Environmental Protection Agency has long had a regulatory regime which encourages the use of biopesticides. This has led to growth in those products, while conventional chemical pesticides remain relatively costly and difficult to register.

The current US Government has signalled possible changes in direction with respect to environmental policy, notably in relation to the insecticide chlorpyrifos, but it remains to be seen how pesticide legislation will be affected in the long term.

The Developing World

In the developing world, the situation is somewhat different. The level of inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers is - on average - lower than in the developing world, but deforestation and agricultural practices which abstract excess ground water are widespread.

For a number of years, there has been a growth in the relatively prosperous middle-income population in large developing countries such as India and China. The demand for an overall better standard of nutrition and in quality food supply in those regions is well established, and this is leading to pressure on land availability.

At the same time, it is reasonable to expect that this section of the population will come to expect the same environmental, quality and safety standards as their counterparts in the developed world. For instance, major cities such as Delhi are frequently subject to severe smog incidents, due in large part to agricultural stubble burning, and action is beginning to be taken.

So, we should expect action being taken to improve the sustainability of agricultural practices, albeit not at the expense of productivity. In parts of the world where access to investment capital is limited, it is reasonable to expect that practices such as IPM, which can be implemented by improved communication and education without major capital investment, to grow.

An indication that IPM has a future in the developing world comes from – for instance – the signs that growth in the biopesticide market in India is very strong, compared to a near flat situation with conventional pesticides.

For further information on this topic, see the new report by IEG Policy’s sister title Agrow titled ‘Sustainability in Agrochemicals’, by following this link.

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