Industry research for large-scale sustainability
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Focus on what is feasible

Dear reader,

Recently, the Federal Government published the sales figures for plant protection products for the year 2020. The number of plant protection products sold declined as it did in previous year. While farmers are increasingly turning to products that are approved for organic farming, sales of plant protection products for conventional agriculture have declined. In fact, these statistics are already out of date. The wet weather in summer 2021 was hard on vegetable, fruit, and wine growers. The disease pressure in the crops was high and the use of pesticides was inevitable. This was the only way to keep fungal diseases reasonably in control. Without protection, there were losses of entire harvests.

Ultimately, the sales figures for plant protection products also bring the political discussions of early summer back on the agenda. Both organic farming and production-oriented farmers need plant protection products. To secure the yield, fungal diseases, pests and weeds must be combated. By reducing the use of plant protection products, the Federal Government wants to minimise risks. ’It remains to be seen whether the set goals will be achieved,’ writes the Tages-Anzeiger. That is actually the case, because the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) does not yet have any data on this. In addition, the sale of plant protection products with active ingredients that have a ‘particular risk potential’ has not changed much in the last ten years. Due to their persistence in the soil, these active ingredients with ’particular risk potential’ also include products that are approved for organic farming – for example copper, which leads to contaminated sites. An example of this is agricultural land, which is being converted into a nature reserve in the Zurich wine country. Potatoes were grown in these fields for years. The consequence of the bio-compatible copper use: The soil must now be disposed in a special landfill in Weiach. Furthermore, copper has another disadvantage: it is easily washed away. If it rains frequently, it must be sprayed continuously. This was a big problem for the farmers in the wet summer of 2021. Another reason why it will be interesting to take a look at the sales figures in 2021.

However: Politics should be based on what is feasible. The farmers need means to protect their crops. The energy policy in Switzerland demonstrates what happens when politicians act without a realistic plan. We are facing a power shortage. In the Indian state of Sikkim, policy makers banned the use of synthetic pesticides and mineral fertilizers in 2016 without a plan. The result: farmers are struggling with huge yield losses because they lack suitable alternative forms of pest control. Inspired by Indian activists, Sri Lanka also embarked on the ’pesticide-free path’ but gave it up again, after only six months, due to losses in harvest and crop quality and the doubling of the prices of staple foods in November 2021.

There are many trade-offs in agriculture. Whoever ignores them and prescribes radical measures without a plan, inevitably ends up in a supply crisis. This will even become more often the case in the future, because the world population continues to grow and climate change is worsening growing conditions in many regions. It affects the quality and quantity of crops. According to a recently published study, there is a risk of significantly lower corn, rice and soy harvests as early as the mid-2030s. Africa and South America are primarily affected. All the more reason for the rest of the world to be agriculturally productive.

Denial of reality is not a good advisor. And mantra-like repetition of unchecked statements either. Terms like "bee mortality" persist in the media. And plant protection products or genetically modified plants are blamed for it. The results of 13 large-scale field studies within the last ten years paint a different picture. It was investigated to what extent plants treated with neonicotinoids affect the health of bee colonies and bumblebees. Plant protection products can adversely affect individual bees. Overall, however, no negative effects on the bee colonies could be observed. Looking at Europe, both the number of bee colonies and honey production are increasing.

Neonicotionoids pose no threat to bee colonies

Nevertheless, there are many dangers for bee health that should not be underestimated. The largest scourge of the honeybee is the Varroa mite, originally from Asia, which spread throughout Europe and the USA in the second half of the 20th century. And it is undisputed that time and expertise are needed in beekeeping, for example in dealing with different biocides to combat the varroa mite. After all, bee poisoning due to misapplication must be prevented.

In addition to beekeepers, farmers are also responsible for carefully applying plant protection products, which could have properties toxic to bees, in organic farming as well as in conventional agriculture and in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. For example, the product may only be applied outside the bee flight paths. The annual report 2020 of the bee health service shows that in 2020, all five cases of bee poisoning could have been prevented by more careful application of biocides by beekeepers and crop protection agents by farmers.

The discussion about food production is often dominated by myths. They have been getting stuck in many heads, even though they are not based on facts. We have addressed ten of the most common myths on The spectrum ranges from ‘pesticides are becoming more and more toxic’ to ‘pesticides are to blame for insect death’. A small reference book.

There are also many myths surrounding gene technology. The advisory commission of the Council of States recently decided that genome editing should be regulated in a differentiated manner. Jan Lucht from scienceindustries puts the decision in motion. As a survey by gfs.bern shows, consumers also see the benefits of precision plant breeding. Even the prominent agricultural journalist Jürg Vollmer predicts that BioSuisse and the Swiss Farmers' Association will put themselves on the sidelines by rejecting the Crispr/Cas gene scissors. His reasoning: ‘CRISPR/Cas breeds could defy pests, save pesticides, tolerate dry soils – and at the same time deliver more yield. Rejecting the gene scissors is pretty much the stupidest thing you can think of.’ For science, the case is clear: In an article on, ETH-Professor Achim Walter explains the benefits of precision breeding.

The Council of States still has to confirm the Commission's encouraging decision in the winter session so that there is a difference with the National Council and modern breeding methods are not also frozen in a wholesale moratorium – to the detriment of sustainable food production. Putting genome editing under the moratorium would also be a strategic mistake. It would make sense not to postpone what is sensibly feasible, but to tackle it. For comprehensively sustainable and resource-efficient agriculture that can still produce our food tomorrow.

Your swiss-food editorial team

The swiss-food platform provides information relating to agriculture and nutrition. It is committed to providing factual information and promoting large-scale sustainability.
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