ALTERNATIVES TO PESTICIDES -3- PESTICIDES
Can we substitute pesticides with other pesticides?
Not only is it possible, but it's even currently the most frequently used by organic farmers and the easiest for them.
Let's see that.
When it's talked about pesticides, society usually only thinks about synthetic pesticides. It's rarely talked about pesticides allowed in organic farming, yet quite numerous, and whose adverse effects are not necessarily negligible. Toxicity for soils, for fish, for bees, endocrine disruptor effects, the consequences of their use often has little to envy to synthetic pesticides. The only fundamental thing that differentiates them is their natural and not synthetic origin.
Many people also think that organic farming is a way to reduce the "power" of the big multinationals of agrochemistry. This is a big mistake, since it's already several years since, feeling the wind turn, they have massively invested in the research for biological solutions for the plant protection.
For example, one of the most important organic insecticides in the world, and currently one of the most widely used pesticides, independently of the crop method, is spinosad (whose toxicity to bees is well known and widely documented), was discovered in 1985, then produced on a large scale by the American agrochemical giant Dow Chemical (now also owner of Dupont). The production of this pesticide, produced by bacteria, is done in ultramodern factories, far from the romantic image of the manual manufacture of pesticides based on plant decoctions.
In the same way, the extraction of natural pyrethrins used in organic farming is based on an intensive industrial production in monoculture using synthetic pesticides on a large scale, also far from the philosophy of organic farming (http://culturagriculture.blogspot.com/2017/04/104-natural-vs-synthetic-4-about.html).
Of course, there is also an important work of homemade pesticides, usually plant extracts or fermentations. Their effectiveness is highly variable, as it depends on the manufacturing conditions (temperature, light, quality of the water used, concentration in active ingredients of plants, know-how of the preparator, etc.).
Some manufacturers, generally local or national companies, rarely multinationals, offer formulated products on the basis of these same plants, which have the advantage of providing the farmer with a certain guarantee of homogeneity and a high degree of ease of use.
But I think the most interesting thing in this field is the research, by many companies, big or small, universities and research institutes, of alternative solutions from Nature to substitute synthetic pesticides.
Nature (especially plants, fungi and bacteria) continues to surprise us with its great creativity in the solutions it has developed to defend itself against external aggressions. (http://culturagriculture.blogspot.com/2015/09/52-lesprit-des-plantes-2-autodefense.html).
Scientific research continues to make discoveries that show that our diet is heavily loaded with natural toxins of great diversity, and that many of these toxins can have interesting agricultural uses.
Thus, several studies (the most famous is American, dated 1999, by Professor Bruce Ames and his team, from the University of Berkeley https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cpdb/pdfs/Paracelsus.pdf) tried to analyze and quantify the natural toxins present in our diet.
The results are very surprising, and are mostly contrary to popular belief: we consume about 10,000 times more natural toxins daily than synthetic pesticide residues.
By the way, this study is 20 years old. Since then, crop protection techniques have evolved, molecules have been modernized and their use rates have been significantly reduced.
Based on my own residue analysis, which I started in 1997, I estimate that the amount of residue on food has been reduced by 10 to 20 times since that time. On the other hand, our foods have not changed much and most probably maintain similar levels of natural toxins.
This would lead us, assuming my estimate is correct, to a proportion of 100,000 to 200,000 times less synthetic pesticide residues than natural toxins absorbed daily in our diet.
I close this parenthesis to tell you that, for what interests me today, these studies are especially interesting to show us that the plant world contains a large number of natural molecules extraction possibilities that could be used in agriculture, with effects fungicide, insecticide, repellent, nematicide and even, in some cases herbicide.
The same Bruce Ames study teaches us, for example, that a cup of coffee contains more than 1,000 chemical compounds and natural toxins.
Very recently (the publication dates from February 1st, 2019), it was discovered that there may be a biological alternative to the highly hyped and highly hated and highly controversial glyphosate https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467- 019-08476-8.
This molecule, a sugar previously unknown, is produced by a bacterium, Synechococcus elongatus, which makes it a biological alternative, with a mode of action very similar to glyphosate, which would be a guarantee of versatility and efficiency.
It would be especially a real solution to the difficulties of weed control, one of the big problems badly solved of the organic agriculture.
It remains to be seen whether this molecule will correct the "defects" of glyphosate, and in how many years the farmer will be able to freely dispose of this new natural molecule.
Many natural pesticides exist, based on plant extracts for the most part: nicotine, natural pyrethrins, neem oil, nettle fermentation, citrus seed extract, garlic extract, lavender extract, tomato leaf extract, chili extract, rotenone, cinnamon extract, vegetable oils, etc.
Some are readily available to farmers, others are handcrafted, and others are subject to bans or restrictions on environmental or health problems.
In short, organic pesticides have a bright future ahead of them. It remains pesticides, with disadvantages similar to synthetic pesticides, but their natural origin is that their use is allowed to farmers, and does not pose a state of soul to fundamentalists of organic. The general ignorance of their side effects on health and on the environment either.
They have a big advantage for farmers: there is no fundamental change in the techniques and methods of production. It can maintain the same work habits by substituting synthetic pesticides with their biological equivalents.
The only downside right now is the lack of biological solutions in many cases. It is likely that thanks to the huge investments in scientific research around the world, new developments will continue to emerge at a rapid pace.
We will see later that other techniques can represent a profound challenge to farmers' habits.
The future must logically consider all available techniques.
Even if great progress is being made, I still think that it is very regrettable and harmful to want to deprive agriculture, at least until there are real alternatives, effective solutions, currently well-known and not very problematic if they are well used, only for an ideology that is not based on any tangible or demonstrated reality.
And we have no illusions, recent or current work that studies large declines in insect or bird populations will not improve with the ban on synthetic pesticides. Natural pesticides will have very similar side effects when used on a very large scale. One can only hope, but without proof for the moment, that their biodegradability will be faster, and still, not those of mining origin, unavoidable in organic, like sulfur or copper.