By Richard Smoley
To many consumers, they are a nest of evils. To growers, they are valuable tools that cannot be eliminated without grave difficulties.
They are pesticides.
Organic farming has become part of mainstream agriculture over the past two decades. But the banning of chemical pesticides causes troubles of its own.
In some ways, 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—meaning they take into account how much actual danger residues may pose.
European regulators tend toward the hazard-based approach, which does not focus on risk as such but the mere presence of harmful residues in foods.
(Incidentally, much of the debate about the Dirty Dozen and other such issues have a great deal to do with this difference and a widespread failure to understand it.)
Because of this different approach to risk, European agrichemical regulations are stricter than they are here. This has caused huge problems for two crops that are as old and venerated as Western civilization itself: olives and grapes.
In France alone, between 2012 and 2017, 12 percent of grapevines were unproductive because of grape root disease. It results in 50 percent less productive plants, a decrease in the quality of the wine, and the premature death of healthy vines, according to Horizon: The EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
To fight this disease, researchers are focusing on a strain of Pythium oligandrum, a “friendly” fungus that is naturally present in the rhizosphere of many crops, including vines. They are hoping to have a viable solution by the end of 2023.
An equally ancient crop, olives, has suffered olive quick 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 killing the plant. This is considered one of the most dangerous plant pathogenic bacteria in the world.
To fight OQDS, the EU-backed SMART-AGRI-SPORE is attempting to develop a biopesticide based on bacterial spores. They hope that by 2024, they will produce a viable biopesticide.
No solution is without its problems. It wasn’t so long ago that DDT and similar insecticides were hailed as godsends. Now they are anathema.
But pesticide residues, however poisonous, are inanimate. They can’t reproduce. Is it possible that biopesticides will cause still greater problems in the future—producing strains that will mutate to destroy crops and human and animal life? No one can say this is impossible.
To prevent such dangers, we can foresee a multi-dimensional approach to pest control—a cautious and judicious use of both chemical pesticides and biopesticides, but focusing above all on soil and plant health, probably to a greater degree than is done at present.
No one wants to live having to take antibiotics every day. Nor is it healthy. It is better to resist infection in the first place by maintaining optimal health. Probably the best and most longstanding approach to crop health will be similar.