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Outside the Box: Modern chemical pesticides are needed more than ever to fight rising food prices, climate change and world hunger

If you want a glimpse into the future, look up the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s latest update to its global Food Price Index; it jumped over 3% in August and now stands almost 33% higher than this time last year.

Analysts attribute only part of this price surge to COVID-19 bottlenecks and labor shortages. The rest is simply because the world is not producing enough food to meet the needs of a growing population. Food prices have been moving steadily upward for two decades now, effectively erasing the dramatic gains in productivity and affordability made during the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s.

Too many policymakers don’t seem to be aware that, according to the U.N., nearly 40% of the global population cannot afford a healthy diet. Instead, many policy makers seem to assume that the agriculture industry has largely solved the extraordinarily complex problem of producing a healthy, abundant and secure food supply.

That assumption leads to demands on environmental grounds that we reject the technologies that have made modern agriculture so productive. These generally include efforts to ban genetic modification, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and sometimes even mechanization. But pesticides are usually the top candidate for elimination.

Now, with the U.N. Climate Change Conference that began on Oct. 31 in Glasgow, these demands are certain to become more strident in the name of combating climate change. Agriculture will be in the crosshairs at Glasgow because it accounts for about 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a number the world farming community needs to continue reducing by making agriculture more efficient and less energy-intensive and through use of cover crops and methods like no-till cultivation that help sequester the main greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide.

Read: To get cows to burp and fart less methane gas, just add seaweed to their diet

And yet, unless we can also continue making agriculture more productive on the land already under cultivation, farmers around the globe will have little choice but to clear more forests and natural vegetation to produce the additional food the world will require in coming years. And clearing that land would only make the climate problem worse, because forests and other natural plants are nature’s chief way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Hundreds of NGOs have already called for the abolition or drastic curtailment of pesticides, usually without much advice about how we should replace the crops that would be lost to pests as a result — which can be up to 50% for wheat, up to 70% for corn and up to 80% for rice, for example– except that we should all eat less.

There’s scant acknowledgment that unless we can use modern methods to increase crop productivity on existing farmland, global hunger could join climate change as an existential problem.

The campaign against modern pesticides escalated last year when the European Commission announced that as a centerpiece of its new agricultural policy it would cut pesticides by 50% and triple the amount of farmland under organic production.

The Commission seemed not to notice that the two goals are directly at odds with each other. Organic farmers are heavy users of pesticides; they just prefer older chemicals like copper sulfate, which is more broadly toxic and has to be used in much greater quantity because it is less effective. There was no acknowledgment that because organic farming is much less productive than conventional methods – about one-third less productive, typically — it would become necessary to convert much more natural habitat to farmland if Europeans are going to have enough to eat. 

Europe and North America once experienced levels of chronic malnutrition comparable to the world’s poorest regions today. It was only the crop productivity revolution begun after World War II, enabled by modern pesticides that created the abundance so many now take for granted. Crop yields, which had remained essentially stagnant for the previous century, turned dramatically upward after the war, with farmers growing two, three, and even five times as much on each acre of land in subsequent decades.  

Advanced hybrids, GMOs, and synthetic fertilizer are given much of the credit. And yet without innovation in chemical crop protection, the other advances would have simply made all those plants more inviting to the 90,000 pests and diseases that have plagued agriculture throughout human history.

With climate change encouraging pest and disease migration as well as the development new strains of threats, the world’s farmers are now fighting an increasingly elusive set of foes. 

Even with modern pesticides, farmers lose up to 40% of their crops because of pests and disease. Without pesticides, the losses would be catastrophic: as much as 50% for wheat, almost 70% for corn, and nearly 80% for rice.

That’s why farmers dating back to the ancient Sumerians have used pesticides. It’s why all farmers today who grow food as a business use chemical pesticides — although the lower efficacy of organic pesticides is a key reason why organic yields average 30% below those of conventional farming methods.

From an environmental perspective, the hostility to modern pesticide technology makes little sense. Since the 1960s, in response to consumer concerns, the chemical industry has worked hard with farmers to reduce unnecessary use of pesticides. Chemical innovation has slashed pesticide toxicity by 98%, reduced the amount applied per acre by 60% and curtailed pesticide persistence in the environment by more than half.

A study of pesticides used in California, a highly diverse agricultural state, found 97% were less toxic than the caffeine in coffee.

Meanwhile, the yield benefits mean that U.S. farmers grow three times as much food as in 1950 on 10% less land, sparing 120 million acres. That’s twice the combined area of all U.S. National Parks. And a study by Stanford researchers found that modern farming technologies had also saved 590 gigatons of CO2 equivalent emissions from being released in the atmosphere, equal to about one-third of all greenhouse gases from all sources between 1850 and 2005.

The world stopped making any real progress against hunger 10 years ago, and now the numbers are rising again. That grim trend portends declining health, including rising levels of infant mortality, child stunting and compromised immune systems, leading to a whole host of life-crippling illnesses.

Lest anyone believe that such suffering in faraway places is not their problem, food insecurity breeds political and social instability on a widespread scale. In 2008, temporary food price spikes set off riots across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It was the high cost of bread that famously ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 and the refugee crisis that engulfed Europe a few years later.

It’s estimated that we will need to grow 70% more food by 2050 to feed the 10 billion people who will be inhabiting out planet.

Only though continued innovation in agriculture can we meet the extraordinary environmental and food-security challenges ahead. Those innovations include biologicals and other forms of crop protection, digitally precise farming, genetic improvements in plants, new and improved kinds of fertilizer and — yes, when and where necessary — environmentally responsible use of chemical pesticides. 

Jon Parr is president of Syngenta Crop Protection.

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