Pick Up

879. Impact of Pesticide Reduction on Food and Feed Security

Related Research Program


879. Impact of Pesticide Reduction on Food and Feed Security

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has welcomed the agreement reached at the end of September on the Global Framework on Chemicals, an international initiative to ensure sound management of chemicals through voluntary and broad participation.

The Framework, which was promoted under the leadership of Germany, aims to achieve lifecycle management of chemicals involving a wide range of stakeholders from different sectors and was finally agreed in a high-level declaration. Within this framework, 28 goals have been set and governments will aim to develop policies and institutional frameworks that will contribute to reducing chemical pollution and promoting safe alternatives by 2030. One of the goals calls for strengthening the links between new legislation on the good management of chemicals and the climate, biodiversity, human rights and health agendas.

The framework also calls for phasing out of highly hazardous pesticides within the agriculture sector by 2035. This move aims to address the ongoing risk management challenge associated with these pesticides and promote the adoption of safer alternatives that are currently available. In the agricultural sector, modern production systems have relied heavily on chemicals, including fertilizers to increase yields and pesticides to control pests. Without changes in production technology, reductions in pesticide use are expected to result in reduced yields of agricultural products. In the worst case, some argue that reduced yields could lead to higher food prices, fluctuations in imports and exports, and other impacts on food security.

An article published in Nature Food on September 21 presents a discussion of the environmental impact of pesticides in Europe, highlighting the immediate and lasting consequences for food and feed security.

The European Green Deal policy is determined to reduce the use and risks of chemical pesticides by 50% across the EU by 2030, in line with its commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity in Europe. In June 2020, the European Commission adopted the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products Regulation (SUR), regarding use and risks of chemical pesticides and the reduction of the use of hazardous substances, towards the goals of the European Green Deal. 

The SUR is a groundbreaking milestone, as it is the first binding directive to include concrete pesticide reduction targets. Despite overwhelming support from the scientific community, the Council of Europe postponed the vote on SUR from July to October 2023. This delay was attributed to the need for additional scientific evidence on the potential impacts of the SUR, particularly amidst the uncertainty created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its potential impact on European food and feed security.
In this context, the Nature Food article carefully synthesizes evidence from studies that examine the effects of pesticide reductions on crop yields. The majority of these analyses predict that implementing EU-wide reductions in pesticide use could lead to higher food prices, increased import dependency and reduced exports of commodity crops. These projections are mainly based on expected yield reductions, with some studies estimating reductions of nearly 20% for cereals and oilseeds. Experts' country-by-country assessments emphasize that the magnitude of these declines will vary depending on factors such as region, crop type, climate, soil conditions, and pest and disease prevalence. Several crops are expected to experience significant declines, most notably Italian and Spanish tomatoes, which are projected to decline by 20 percent, and Italian olives, which are projected to decline by 30 percent. In addition, horticultural vegetables grown in greenhouses are expected to experience a 20% reduction in yield. If the Green Deal targets are universally adopted, the agricultural sector is estimated to suffer a 12% reduction in yields.
However, the paper points out a critical aspect that is often overlooked in existing analyses: the assumption of a uniform 50% reduction in pesticides across all crops, which oversimplifies the path to pesticide reduction. The paper argues for a nuanced, tailored approach rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy.
First, the paper emphasizes the importance of reducing pesticides beyond the traditional agriculture, food, and feed sectors to include areas such as urban green spaces. In particular, 37% of pesticide use in developed countries is in textiles, services, and non-nutritional food production. The paper suggests that countries could mitigate the negative impacts on food and feed security by focusing their 50% pesticide reduction targets on these sectors.
In addition, the paper highlights the differences in crop priorities between countries, making it impractical to enforce a uniform 50% reduction in pesticide use and risk across all crops and regions. Instead, by targeting pesticide reductions to crops that can be effectively managed without heavy reliance on pesticides, the potential adverse effects on production, prices and trade could be better managed. The paper suggests that this approach may indeed be feasible and may provide a more balanced outcome than current studies estimate.
As the paper points out, the level of pesticide use is extremely complex and depends on many factors, including (1) biological factors - pest abundance, local weather, soil type, and crop diversity; (2) agronomic factors - decisions about tillage, planting date, variety, fertilizer application, and crop rotation; (3) economic factors - economic and financial conditions at the field level and projected yields; and (4) social and political factors. As a result, pesticide use varies widely around the world, and even small countries exhibit geographic diversity. Globally, the state of the food system and the regulatory status of pesticides account for one-third of the factors that explain differences in the risk of environmental contamination from pesticides across countries. On the other hand, as many studies have shown, the extent of pesticide use varies not only from year to year and from region to region within a country, but also among farmers under similar environmental and socioeconomic conditions.
The paper expresses optimism about the potential value of field-level pesticide use logbooks (diaries) proposed under the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products Regulation (SUR). These logbooks are envisioned to provide critical data essential for the development of effective pesticide reduction strategies. Using this data to inform decision-making can facilitate pesticide reduction efforts without compromising yields or increasing the risk of pest and disease outbreaks. It also enables prioritization of crops, regions and sectors, taking into account the unique food and feed security needs of each country. Technological advances are enabling strategic pesticide use, significantly improving efficiency.
Interestingly, the paper suggests that risk-based pesticide reduction indicators can lead to the achievement of environmental and social benefits without limiting farmers' access to essential pesticide management tools. This can be achieved by modifying active ingredients to less toxic options, or by adopting approaches such as biological control through biopesticides and natural enemies. Such shifts hold promise for reducing the overall impact of pesticides while maintaining effective pest management.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) should ideally emphasize the use of biologically resistant varieties. The use of modern breeding tools to develop varieties with enhanced biological resistance is encouraged, in line with the objectives of the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products Regulation (SUR). 
In agriculture, the reduction of pesticide use should be guided by IPM principles and an informed approach that includes multiple strategies for effective crop protection. Maintaining crop yields is a key pillar in ensuring both food and feed security. Studies within the EU illustrating the potential yield reductions resulting from a 50% reduction in pesticide use represent the upper limit of a uniform reduction across all crops. In practice, however, the entire 50% reduction need not fall exclusively on food and feed production. The SUR could present agronomic and technological alternatives to pesticides, using strategies such as switching to less toxic active ingredients and expanding organic farming. This approach takes advantage of variations in pesticide use among farmers, regions, and crops to develop reduction plans. As a result, pesticide reduction should actively contribute to maintaining essential ecosystem services that underpin sustainable crop yields. Improved data collection on pesticide use, facilitated by the SUR, promises to address research and policy bottlenecks and accelerate progress toward more sustainable food systems.

Schneider, K., Barreiro-Hurle, J. & Rodriguez-Cerezo, E. Pesticide reduction amidst food and feed security concerns in Europe. Nat Food 4, 746–750 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00834-6


Contributors: Solongo TUMUR and IIYAMA Miyuki (Information Program)


Related Pages