New Study Finds Farms Could Use Fewer Pesticides And Still Grow Just As Much Food

A majority of farms could be just as productive—if not more—and profitable by cutting pesticide use.

April 21, 2017
tractor spraying on field

Pesticides are a necessary evil, the argument typically goes—what choice is there when the alternative to using them is a lost crop and lost profits? But new research out in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Plants will make it much tougher for pesticide companies and their proponents to make the claim that our food supply is totally dependent on chemical sprays.


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The new study measured pesticide usage—including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides—crop productivity, and profitability of 1,000 French farms of various sizes and types and found that “low pesticide use rarely decreases productivity and profitability in arable [land] farms.” More specifically, a whopping 94 percent of farms could cut pesticide usage by 40 percent without losing out on production or profit. Of these, two-fifths would actually be more productive without the pesticides. Of the three categories of pesticides, the researchers found that insecticides were most overused—86 percent of farms would increase production by reducing use, and none would become less productive.

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The important caveat to this study is that farmers can’t simply stop using pesticides without changing anything else and still expect to see favorable results. In order to use fewer pesticides and still maintain or increase their harvest, farmers also need to practice integrated pest management techniques. That means taking steps to ensure that pests, weeds, and fungi don’t become such a big problem in the first place, such as practicing crop rotation, choosing pest-resistant plant varieties, and carefully planning planting dates to avoid high insect activity.

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Nicolas Munier-Jolain, who is at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research and worked on the study, told the Guardian that the reason more farmers don’t try a low-pesticide approach to farming is that they’re getting their advice from pesticide companies with a vested interest in keeping them as customers—information about alternative farming methods simply isn’t reaching them. However, Munier-Jolain says that trend is beginning to change as more farmers become concerned about how working with pesticides will impact their own health.