A year of famine without pesticides

A year of famine without pesticides

The year the prohibition against pesticides was put to a vote in Switzerland domestic farmers faced extremely severe weather conditions. It is clear that pesticides are indispensable.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

This conclusion is hardly surprising. And yet, an article that appeared in the “TagesAnzeiger” may have given some readers cause for concern. The article stated that in the past there would have been a famine in such years. This is the assessment of organic farmer Urs Dünner. Dünner, who farms in the canton of Thurgau, will only see half his traditional potato harvest this year. His fields were decimated by blight because of the cold and wet weather. The mixture of copper and rock flour the organic farmer uses against blight as an organic pesticide was of little use in the face of these conditions. Things look somewhat better for Daniel Peter. Peter, who uses traditional farming methods, lost around a third of his potato harvest. Without pesticides, he too would have had to write off around half his potato crop.


Many crops are under pressure

Most Swiss farmers shared the experience of Dünner and Peter in 2021. The final figures have not yet been tallied, but the reports so far indicate that the potato harvests in many places were much lower than in previous years. The differences will be even more substantial among organic farmers, says Niklaus Ramseyer, Managing Director of the Association of Swiss Potato Producers, as quoted in the aforementioned article. Things would have been far worse in Switzerland if pesticides hadn’t been used. This was also the case with orchards. Without pesticides, the harvest of cherries and plums would have been totally wiped out because of rot and pests, says Beatrice Rüttimann of Swissfruit, a trade organization.

In many parts of Switzerland, vineyards were also badly affected by the weather as well. The situation in the city of Zurich was especially difficult because of a hail storm on June 13. But even without these factors it would have been a difficult year. The year got off to a bad start, with frost in the spring followed by a wet summer. The rainwater immediately washed the pesticide that had been sprayed off the leaves, allowing mildew – a fungus that dries grapes leaves and fruit – to form, according to the “TagesAnzeiger” in another article.


Pesticide initiatives are a Utopian fantasy

Just last June, Switzerland voted on two agricultural initiatives, that would have banned or sharply limited the use of pesticides. The experience this year shows how Utopian these initiatives were. Pesticides are indispensable. Of course, years like this also place pressure on the soil because of the increased number of paths, as crops need more spraying than usual in order to protect them. 2021 made the importance of breeding more resistant varieties especially clear. This is also the view of farmers Dünner and Peter. Such varieties would also make sense for economic reasons. However, organic farmer Dünner warns: “Pesticides shouldn’t be removed from the market before new varieties have truly proven themselves.” The development of new varieties sometimes requires years or even decades. In Switzerland this process is made even more difficult because gene editing is currently prohibited as part of the moratorium on genetic engineering. This takes away one option for breeding hardier varieties more quickly and precisely than with traditional breeding methods. With a view to current and future challenges facing farmers, it is important to keep all options open – to ensure that farming is profitable and as sustainable as possible.

Poor harvest year 2021

The year 2021 will leave its mark on practically all crops in the form of harvest losses and total failures. Particularly affected are viticulture and fruit growing, where severe hailstorms destroyed most of the fruit. However, added to this was waterlogging of fields and strong pressures from plant diseases. Powdery mildew and late blight were able to spread particularly well due to the damp and wet conditions. In order to protect potatoes to some extent from late blight, farmers were dependent on effective pesticides. Without these means, there would probably have been total failures in the potato harvest as well. 150 years ago, the fungal disease destroyed entire annual crops and led to terrible famines that claimed a million lives in Ireland (out of a population of 8 million at the time) and triggered mass emigration. The wet summer of 2021 would probably also have led to famine in previous generations - when no effective pesticides were available and imports were not possible. This was taking place in a summer when two popular initiatives wanted to ban the use of pesticides or financially reward non-usage and thus wastage of food on the field. A current study by Agroscope once again confirms: A total renunciation of pesticides would result in crop failures of up to 47 percent. That means: More imports where imports are possible. Where no replacement can be obtained, second-class goods come onto the shelves or shelves remain empty. For consumers, scarcity also means higher prices.

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