But plant protection is a complex matter. To reduce risks effectively and efficiently, we need to take a holistic view, and include all stakeholders, from farmers and authorities to consumers. In an interdisciplinary team of experts, we have outlined what such a pesticide policy could look like in a paper published recently in Nature Food.1
Setting and monitoring risk-based reduction targets
If you want to reduce risks, you have to measure them. In practice, such measurements are often based on the quantity of substances applied, without taking toxicity into account. This doesn’t accurately determine extreme risks in particular (see previous blog post); it would be advisable to use risk-based indicators that take into account the potential harm to humans and the environment.
An effective pesticide policy must define measurable, transparent and binding objectives to reduce risks. These are lacking in most EU countries and in Switzerland.
Governments setting targets should regularly check whether they’re being achieved, and make the results publicly available. However, very few countries know exactly when, where and in what quantities pesticides are used. We need more transparency here.
Exploiting alternative approaches
A number of practices and technologies harbour potential for partially forgoing pesticides or even completely replacing them. Agro-ecological approaches must increasingly become the norm in traditional agriculture too – for example, farming systems rich in species and with diverse crop rotations that reduce disease and pest pressure, and methods that control any remaining pests biologically.
Another avenue is the use of new molecular biological techniques to breed crop varieties resistant to diseases and pests more efficiently. In the EU and Switzerland, however, such breeding methods are tightly regulated; we should be more open to evaluating these new options in the context of sustainable plant protection.
Digitalisation too can play a key part here. In precision farming, for example, autonomous robots and drones control weeds, pests and diseases by spraying or mechanical weeding where necessary. Such technologies for smart crop protection must be enhanced and promoted.