Critics of the industry often claim today’s pesticides are more toxic and damaging to soil than ever – but nothing could be further from the truth, says Adam Speed, head of communications at the Crop Protection Association.
Recently I found myself researching a presentation for an event and thought I’d look for a few new statistics to support the argument that the crop protection industry is incredible and has done amazing work in supporting farmers to bring healthy, safe, affordable food to tables up and down the country.
I came across a report published last year by the consultants Phillips McDougall, ‘Evolution of the Crop Protection Industry since 1960’.
As someone working in the industry and pretty au fait with many of the arguments, even I was astounded by some of the things I read.
We’ve often talked about the reduction in volume of pesticides applied, a reduction of about 50 per cent since 1990.
However, the report shows how products have become more effective and more efficient, with a significant reduction in the application rates per hectare.
This means farmers need to apply a lower dose to achieve the same efficacy. From the 1950s to the 2000s, application rates were around 95 per cent lower on average.
When we point to these improvements, in particular the reduction in volume, critics of our industry often claim this is because the products on the market today are ‘more toxic’.
But not according to this report.
The World Health Organisation classifies the toxicity of pesticides according to the ‘LD50’, a measurement of the acute toxicity of a product.
The higher the LD50, the greater the margin of safety to human health.
The average LD50 of crop protection products today is around 3,500 mg/kg compared to an average in the 1960s of 2,500 mg/kg, a reduction in toxicity of around 40 per cent.
Another important factor is the impact of products on the soil.
We often hear unreferenced and unsubstantiated claims that we only have 30, 60 or 100 (insert own randomly generated number here) harvests left in the soil, with the finger of blame often being pointed at the use of pesticides.
Yet the average half-life of products introduced in the 1980s was 72 days, and for products introduced in the 2000s, it’s 53 days.
Products are required to persist in the soil for a certain amount of time to ensure they do their job protecting crops, but this reduction shows the right balance is being found through product development and innovation.
While all of these improvements in efficacy, toxicity and soil persistence were happening, farmers have still been able to increase yields and meet the demands of a growing population, with overall yields across all crops increasing from around 4t/ha in 1960 to around 6t/ha today, an increase of around 60 per cent.
If you think about it, our ability to increase production, while continuing to spare land for nature and biodiversity is an incredible story of scientific innovation and human ingenuity.
Something that should be celebrated.
And we’re not done yet.
We’re on the brink of the 4th agricultural revolution, where further advances in science and technology will enable farmers to continue to provide a supply of safe and affordable food while reducing the impact on the environment and fighting climate change.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
In one of his first speeches as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson pledged to ‘liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector’.
These are encouraging words, and as the Agriculture Bill makes its way back to Parliament, we await the detail on what this liberation might entail.
In the meantime, we should be proud of what we’ve achieved in the last 60 years, and optimistic about what the next 60 might bring.
Adam can be found tweeting at @AdamMSpeed