For many consumers, they are a nest of evils. For growers, these are valuable tools that cannot be disposed of without serious difficulty.
They are pesticides.
Organic farming has become part of mainstream agriculture over the past two decades. But the ban on chemical pesticides causes its own problems.
In some respects, these problems are more acute in Western Europe than in the United States. Regulators in this country tend to take a risk-based approach to environmental pollutants, which means they take into account the real danger that residues may pose.
European regulators tend towards the hazard-based approach, which does not focus on the risk as such but on the mere presence of harmful residues in food.
(By the way, much of the debate over the Dirty Dozen and other similar issues has a lot to do with this difference and a widespread failure to understand it.)
Because of this different approach to risk, European agrochemical regulations are stricter than here. This has caused enormous problems for two crops as ancient and revered as Western civilization itself: olives and grapes.
In France alone, between 2012 and 2017, 12% of vines were unproductive due to vine root disease. The result is 50% less productive plants, reduced wine quality and the premature death of healthy vines, according to Horizon: the EU’s research and innovation magazine.
To combat this disease, researchers are looking at a strain of Pythium oligandrum, a “friendly” fungus naturally present in the rhizosphere of many crops, including vines. They hope to have a workable solution by the end of 2023.
An equally ancient crop, olives, suffered from olive rapid decline syndrome (OQDS), a disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa. Xylella has surfaced in France, Spain and Portugal. It is spread by an insect called the spittlebug. Plants are infected from the roots upwards causing the leaves to turn brown and eventually kill the plant. It is considered one of the most dangerous phytopathogenic bacteria in the world.
To combat OQDS, the EU-supported SMART-AGRI-SPORE is trying to develop a biopesticide based on bacterial spores. They hope that by 2024 they will produce a viable biopesticide.
No solution is without problems. Not so long ago, DDT and similar insecticides were hailed as bargains. Now they are anathema.
But pesticide residues, toxic as they are, are inanimate. They cannot reproduce. Is it possible that biopesticides will cause even more problems in the future, by producing strains that will mutate to destroy crops and human and animal life? No one can say it’s impossible.
To prevent such dangers, we can consider a multifaceted approach to pest management – careful and judicious use of chemical pesticides and biopesticides, but focusing first and foremost on soil and plant health, probably to a greater extent than ‘currently.
No one wants to live with having to take antibiotics every day. It’s not healthy either. It is best to resist infection in the first place by maintaining optimal health. The best and oldest approach to crop health will likely be similar.