Agricultural sustainability and pesticides: a lesson from the UK

Agricultural sustainability and pesticides: a lesson from the UK

February 07, 2020

Agricultural sustainability and pesticides: a lesson from the UK

A study published in Nature Sustainability calculates the loss of productivity linked to pesticide resistance as £400 million per year and 800 tons of wheat. The solution lies in a more sustainable form of agriculture.

Resistance to xenobiotics, such as antibiotics, antifungals and pesticides, is a major public health and economic issue.

Due to the excessive frequency of application, the same pesticides that allowed an increase in food production in the past are now becoming less efficient. To get a better understanding of the extent of the phenomenon, a group of British researchers estimated the economic impact of the resistance to herbicides of Alopecurus myosuroides, commonly known as black grass or slender meadow foxtail, a weed that endangers wheat crops in the country.

Research figures

According to calculations published in Nature Sustainability, the resistance developed by so-called black grass is causing an average loss of £400 million and 800,000 tons of wheat (about 5% of domestic consumption) to the British economy, with potential implications for food security. Alexa Varah, the lead author of the paper, said the study is “the first nationwide estimate of economic costs and yield losses due to herbicide resistance. And she adds that the figure is surprisingly higher than anyone could have imagined. We need to reduce the use of pesticides nationally, which could mean introducing legal limits or supporting farmers to encourage reduced use and alternative strategies.

Sustainable approach

There are a few herbicides left to which black grass has not developed a resistance, but this will not hold for much longer and farmers must be able to adapt, Varah points out, suggesting that they adopt integrated strategies such as rotations of different crops. “Currently the responsibility lies with individual professionals, but this is not a sustainable approach. It should be regulated nationally, linking the economic, agricultural, environmental and health aspects in a joint action plan.”

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