Running the Earth into the Ground
Aphids, fruit fly, gout fly, leatherjackets and orange wheat blossom midge. Slugs, wheat bulb fly, wireworms, brassica pod midge, cabbage root fly, flea beetles, leatherjackets, pollen beetle and weevils. Many other breeds of pests threaten arable farming, from species of fungi to different bacteria. Most are significant irritants to farmers and influence the quality of a crop yield.
But we have pesticides to fend these pests off, we have fertiliser to improve the resilience of the plants, and we also have crop rotation, right?
Yes, we do. But these contribute to human and environmental distress.
Pesticides primarily increase a crop’s economic potential. However, their benefits appear overshadowed by disturbing harmful effects on humans and the environment. The groups most at risk from pesticides are those who work directly with them. Exposure to pesticides can impact our immune efficiency, disrupt hormones and sexual reproduction and invite malign abnormalities into our bodies. People in developing or economically neglected regions feel these effects most heavily, often supplying food to more developed and wealthier areas.
Although helping improve a crop yield in the short term, fertilisers are mainly detrimental to our food systems and the non-human environment. We use the word ‘largely’ because natural fertilisers, such as animal manure and compost, do not carry the same risks as chemical fertilisers.
Chemical fertilisers harden soil, increase the number of pests and disrupt plant maturing, which, in turn, increases our application of pesticides. The vicious cycle continues. The production of fertilisers can be highly polluting, as the Haber process is often used in their making. This process requires burning fossil fuels. The pollution goes further, as chemical fertilisers are, in the main, transported by petrol-fuelled vehicles. The altering of this system might aid global efforts to achieve net-zero carbon goals.
How does crop rotation fit into this? This ancient practice has proven effective for thousands of years, but today’s much larger global population requires a rejigging of this method. Rotation has historically only involved a small number of crops, but today this form, along with the application of fertilisers and pesticides, means its effectiveness is sorely diminished. Pests become familiar with rotations lacking in diversity, and combined with weak root systems aggravated by chemical fertilisers, the nutritional value of crops is reduced.
Suppose crop rotation is altered to include more plant species (with particular inclusion of deep-rooted, bast fibre crops, such as hemp). In that case, rotation sites get frequently relocated, and margins between fields are left for wild animals and plants. The urge to apply fertilisers and pesticides in farming could be significantly reduced.
Note: This blog focuses on three specific farming areas and acknowledges that these are just a few of many aspects that should be investigated when assessing the future of farming.
Dermot Moore is our analyst and an MA student in Global Environmental History at the University of Uppsala in Sweden
DW News – Influence of Pesticides on public health
Sustainable Control of Crop Pests – Agroecology.co.uk
Margent Farm – See for an explanation of field margin value