Steph Morren, Senior Policy Officer reflects on the situation 60 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  We still face many of the same issues with chemical use, however, many farmers are now adopting innovative and nature-friendly methods of managing pests that reduce their reliance on pesticides.  

Pesticides including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are used widely in agriculture right across the world. The environmental impact on water, soils and wildlife of chemicals is increasingly of concern, as well as the impact on human health. The devastating harm to bees from neonicotinoid pesticides is one of the most high-profile issues and we now know that, despite this evidence, the Government has gone against scientific advice and approved their use on sugar beet in 2022. But it's not just bees - evidence of impacts to other non-target species from chemical use is also increasing.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring which highlighted the major threat to biodiversity and people from pesticides. Fortunately, we generally no longer use some of the chemicals that she wrote about that directly poisoned birds and other wildlife in such numbers. However, pesticide use continued to increase, wildlife continues to decline, and a cocktail of harmful chemicals is increasingly present in the environment.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. More and more farmers are reducing their inputs by innovative and nature-friendly methods of managing pests and diseases, improving their soil quality, and bringing wildlife back to their farms. Nature-friendly Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can include a whole host of things including increased crop rotation, intercropping, encouraging beneficial pest predators, choosing resistant varieties and much more. A true IPM strategy will monitor pest thresholds and only treat issues that exceed economic thresholds – they also only use chemical pesticides as a last resort. This in turn protects and enhances vital biodiversity such as pollinators that we need to grow food successfully.

Image (c) Markus Spiske

However, this approach requires time, guidance, advice and some trial and error to make it work. The new ELM scheme in England and future land management schemes in the other UK countries need to support farmers with the incentives and advice to make these changes. But peer to peer learning is also vital. In partnership, we recently ran a series of webinars for farmers, their advisors, and anyone else with an interest in IPM, to highlight the benefits of insects, plants and fungi to an IPM strategy, and the recording of these can be found on the project page here. More information on the project including videos and farmer case studies will be added as they become available.

Defra’s National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (NAP) is due to be published this spring or summer. We expect it to commit to driving an increase in uptake of IPM and also commit to setting pesticide reduction targets. No reduction targets can be met without the support for farmers to make the changes required and we look forward to seeing more progress on this soon. In England, Defra have said that an IPM standard will be rolled out as part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive in 2023, but this needs to be designed in a way that will support as many farmers as possible to integrate IPM into their farm business and genuinely lead to a reduction in pesticide use.

Rachel Carson said “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” Sixty years on, we are in the midst of a nature crisis and we don’t have time to wait.