Less crop protection in 2020, probably more in 2021
The federal figures for the volume of plant protection products sold in 2020 offer a contradictory picture: total sales figures for plant protection products have continued to decline. In 2020, 1930 tonnes of plant protection products were sold in Switzerland in total. There was an increase in the sale of plant protection products permitted for use in organic farming. This also includes substances that pose a considerable risk.
Thursday, November 25, 2021
As the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) writes, the total volume of sales for plant protection products amounted to 1930 tonnes, which is 23 tonnes fewer than in 2019. ‘Five of the ten best-selling substances in 2020 (fatty acid, potassium bicarbonate, copper, paraffin oil and sulphur) are permitted for use in organic farming.’ However, they are also used by conventional farms.
The statistics initially reveal something mundane: farms of all kinds are reliant on plant protection products. This is true for both organic and conventional farming. This also clear when looking at the long ‘list of approved substances’ issued by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FibL). Farmers must combat fungal diseases, pests and weeds in order to safeguard their yield.
The trend is clear, and it continued in 2020 (see chart). Whilst the volume of sales fell for conventional farming pesticides, there has been an increase in sales volume for pesticides that can be used in both organic and conventional farming. The FOAG writes: ‘Sales volumes for products used in organic farming have overtaken those of products that can only be used in conventional farming. Since 2008, sales volumes of products that can be used in organic farming have increased by 51 percent, whilst sales volumes for products that can only be used in conventional farming have fallen by 41 percent in the same period.’ This could be due to the fact that conventional farms are also increasingly using products that are permitted for organic farming.
Synthetic agents for organic use
Contrary to marketing claims by major distributors and Bio Suisse, organic farming does make use of synthetic plant protection products: copper and sulphur are manufactured synthetically, and sulphur and paraffin oil are petroleum derivatives.
The chart above also shows substances that pose a particular risk (in orange). Sales volumes of these have remained more or less steady – particularly for the heavy metal copper, which lingers in the soil and is also permitted for organic use. Contrary to widespread belief, a substance being permitted for organic farming does not make it 'safe’ or ‘harmless’: copper, for example, lingers in the soil, which causes contamination. One example of this is farmland that has been turned into a nature reserve in Zurich’s wine region. Potatoes were grown in the fields for many years. The consequence of the organic-friendly use of copper is that the soil must now be disposed of in a special landfill site in Weiach.
Plant protection products that are poisonous to bees: rejected by Demeter, permitted under organic rules
The insecticide Spinosad is also permitted for organic use: it is dangerous to bees and should not come into contact with plants that are flowering or that present honeydew (e.g. crops, weeds, adjacent crops, hedges). Spinosad is also very poisonous to aquatic organisms and has a long-term effect. Demeter has recently become stricter than organic rules in this area. Given Spinosad’s toxicity and the resulting risk to insects, a few days ago Demeter decided to step away from Spinosad and forbid its use in the future.
So, is it a scandal that Bio Suisse still permits its use? First off, this simply demonstrates that all biocide and plant protection products, like medication and household chemicals, should be used carefully in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications. The fact that organic substances such as Spinosad are continuing to be used is also due to the approval process for plant protection products in Switzerland. In fact, both organic and conventionally run farms essentially have no other choice than to use the plant protection products still available on the market, whilst many innovative plant protection products are barred from both organic and conventional use.
Approval logjam is impeding innovation
The approval logjam harbours considerable risk. With increasing numbers of products being withdrawn from the market, resistance issues are on the rise. Plant protection products prevent crop losses and thus food waste in fields, and help to save at least part of the harvest in difficult growing years like 2021. Therefore, quantities of plant protection products are expected to increase in 2021, for both organic and conventional farming. Farmers had to apply plant protection products multiple times during the damp summer of 2021, especially for organic substances that wash off easily. The federal government will report in a year’s time on how this has affected sales volumes for 2021.
The media is full of stories about Swiss producers of plant protection products exporting pesticides that are banned in Switzerland. Weak regulations in importing countries would be deliberately exploited. However, this does not correspond to the facts. When exporting plant protection products, Swiss manufacturers adhere to strict international standards. In addition, there are certain products for which an approval in Switzerland does not make sense.
The health of our crops cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary: in our mobile world, pests and plant diseases are spreading like wildfire. Climate change acts as an accelerant. When pests migrate and new plant diseases establish themselves in our latitudes, they can become a threat to native species. The International Plant Health Day on 12 May is a reminder of this. And the day shows: to ensure plant health in the future, research and innovation are needed above all.
In Switzerland, a growing number of pesticides are being banned by the authorities. At the same time, there are almost no new ones entering the market. The regulatory authorities are severely overstretched. Things cannot go on like this. Every product that disappears from the market increases the risk of pests developing resistance and of crops failing.