By Claude Flueckiger
Pesticides, also referred to as chemical crop-protection products (CCPPs), are currently critical to sustaining the world’s agricultural outputs. This article addresses the current importance of CCPPs, while exploring the trends and market forces that will drastically reduce or even eliminate the use of CCPPs in the long term.
Importance of CCPPs in the short term
Without CCPPs, crop losses would reduce current yields by 20-40% (1). Expanding farmlands to offset crop losses would be ecologically devastating. Therefore, to preserve wilderness areas and maintain biodiversity, we must avoid increasing the portion of the Earth’s surface used as agricultural lands. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals call for “sustainable agricultural intensification” (2). Farmers can only meet those goals if they have tools that increase the efficiency of their existing operations and enable them to increase yields without increasing farmland. Therefore, CCPPs will remain critically important and common in the short and medium term. Taking CCPPs off the market before viable alternatives exist would have negative consequences for farmers, the global food supply, and worldwide agricultural sustainability.
Are CCPPs safe?
Not only are CCPPs important for improved yields and sustainable agricultural intensification, but according to European and U.S. regulatory authorities, CCPPs are also safe (1,3,4). Before approving any CCPP, regulators determine a maximum safe level for human exposure, based on stringent toxicological evaluations. Regulators then reduce this safe level by a factor of 100 to arrive at the maximum level tolerated for a given CCPP on a crop (the “tolerance level”). Due to continuous advances in analytical techniques, extremely low residue levels can now be detected on crops. However, as long as these residue levels are below the tolerance level, which is 1/100 of the maximum level that would still be considered safe, then CCPPs have no impact on human health. Discussions regarding chemical residues should consider the actual residue levels, relative to the tolerance levels (5). Otherwise, the public may be left with the mistaken impression that any residue level is harmful, when in fact, low residue levels are safe. CCPP residue level violations have become increasingly rare, especially in developed countries.
Modern CCPPs are integrated pest management compatible
Because of the high efficacy of CCPPs at low application rates and their selectivity in sparing beneficial organisms, modern CCPPs have become more suited for use in integrated pest management (IPM) programs (6), which are the foundation of sustainable agricultural intensification. CCPPs are also well suited to support the introduction of new technologies, such as biological crop protection products and more resistant crop varieties. Many of these new innovative technologies initially cannot outperform CCPPs and therefore must be applied in an integrated system with CCPPs until the new technologies are refined to reach their full potential.
Although overall CCPP sales continue to grow, their use is declining in many markets
The global CCPP market, valued at more than $60 billion, is still projected to grow globally over the next 5 years, and the industry will continue to bring new CCPPs to market. The need for an increase in global food production drives the intensification of agricultural production, which in turn leads to an increased demand for CCPPs. As a result, certain markets that still must increase yields, particularly in developing countries, will continue to use more CCPPs. The introduction of herbicide tolerant crops, no-till farming, and biofuels will create additional demand for CCPPs.
However, many countries are implementing policies to reduce CCPP usage. As alternative biological technologies become increasingly available, CCPPs will face even further restrictions and bans. This trend is already apparent: the introduction of genetically modified Bt corn in the United States made the use of chemical insecticides unnecessary on that crop (7). In addition, organic production does not allow CCPPs, and a large percentage of vegetable IPM production in greenhouses uses biocontrol with little or no CCPPs. Because many pests, diseases, and weeds become resistant to a given CCPP, and the limited number of new active ingredients is insufficient to replace them, biopesticides will become attractive alternatives. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biopesticides include naturally occurring substances and microorganisms that control pests and pesticidal substances produced by plants containing added genetic material (plant-incorporated protectants). The markets have recognized the demand for biopesticides and venture capital funding is shifting towards development of alternatives to CCPPs (8).
Agriculture companies face challenges in developing new CCPPs
Each year, registering new active ingredients becomes more difficult and more costly. This difficulty is reflected in the drastic decline in the number of recent registrations (9). The average R&D costs necessary to bring a new active ingredient to market have doubled to $286 million, and, over the last 20 years, the development time has increased from 8 to 11 years (9). In addition, the development costs per new active ingredient are increasing, due to the decreased number of new registrations, combined with the large fixed costs of crop protection R&D. Increasing costs make it necessary for agriculture companies to develop broad-spectrum blockbuster products with large markets to recover development costs and maintain profitability. However, the economic incentive to develop broad-spectrum products conflicts with market demands for specific, targeted products that are IPM compatible. Those targeted products currently have a smaller market and are thus less profitable for the agricultural companies to develop.
As agricultural companies face higher costs and other barriers in the development of new CCPP active ingredients, biopesticides offer a whole new pipeline of products. New product pipelines are also attractive to the industry because patent expiry, which allows generic companies to copy and sell products at reduced prices, is a threat to companies’ bottom lines and must be compensated through development of new products.
A revolution in the adoption of new technologies will reduce the need for CCPPs
Agricultural practices have been shifting toward sustainable agriculture through the use of IPM (6) and regenerative agricultural practices to achieve healthier soils that improve food security, address climate change, and preserve biological diversity (10). In a regenerative agricultural system, farmers conduct agricultural practices that increase the level and importance of beneficials (e.g., arthropods and the microbiome) on the farm. CCPPs are not compatible with this regenerative agriculture trend. Biopesticides can not only replace CCPPs, but can actually trigger the beneficials themselves to control pests, diseases, and weeds.
The biopesticide market is booming, and according to two different studies it was estimated to be worth $3.1 billion in 2018 (11) and $10 billion in 2025 (12). Moreover, more patents were issued in 2017 for biopesticides than for CCPPs (9). The market share for biopesticides will be larger than that for chemicals, (13) but the timeframe for this growth is unclear. Biopesticides are also a tool for introducing other biologicals, such as biofertilizers, inoculants, probiotics, and biostimulants. Our ability to find new biopesticides with these properties has increased drastically with the development of “omics” technologies (14). Advances in precision agriculture, digital farming, integrated system approaches, and other technologies, such as targeted application methods and nanotechnology, will compound the effectiveness of such biological solutions.Protecting and utilizing residential beneficials to conduct crop protection will be a revolution and the breakthrough for biopesticides to replace CCPPs (15).
All of these developments will significantly reduce the need for CCPPs. The trend of reduced CCPP usage will initially be slower in developing countries. However, once biopesticides and other biological innovations become highly efficacious, they will contribute to a decline in CCPP usage worldwide.
The public wants CCPP usage further restricted or forbidden
An increasing portion of the general public wants CCPP use to be further restricted or forbidden. A variety of issues have influenced public opinion, such as glyphosate’s suspected carcinogenic nature, concern about neonicotinoid insecticides contributing to bee decline, and occasional reports of increased pesticide residues. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the Pesticide Action Network are fueling these concerns and invest in campaigns against CCPPs. So far, the industry has been unsuccessful in both adequately addressing the public’s concerns regarding these issues and in communicating CCPPs’ net benefits, such as agricultural efficiency and sustainability. As a result, the public does not believe that existing regulatory schemes are adequate.
Even the best safety and regulatory framework is subject to errors and violations, and the use of CCPPs will never be risk free. Although the present regulatory schemes suggest that CCPPs are safe, issues including worker safety and environmental effects (e.g., the impact on biodiversity and the microbiome) require additional attention. Furthermore, the scientific community is continually reviewing safety standards for CCPPs, such as possible effects at low concentrations (e.g., endocrine disruption and the effects of CCPP mixtures). A CCPP that is currently considered safe may be deemed unsafe in the future because of new findings and increased regulatory standards. As a result of regulatory developments, many older pesticides have been taken off the market, and many more will be withdrawn. The degree of the risk CCPPs pose is heavily debated, and perceived risks will continue to capture the public’s attention. This will lead supermarket chains to use their purchasing power over farmers to maintain pressure on the agriculture industry to move away from CCPPs.
CCPPs will continue to play an important short-term role because of their agricultural efficiency and significance in increasing yields. The fact that modern CCPPs are IPM compatible and safe makes them important tools for sustainable agricultural intensification. The global use of CCPPs is still forecasted to increase over the next 5 years due to agricultural intensification, especially in developing countries. Despite CCPPs’ current importance, various trends are contributing to their decline, and agriculture companies are facing difficulties in developing new CCPPs. The industry’s economic incentive to develop broad-spectrum CCPPs conflicts with the market’s need for specific targeted IPM products. Moreover, the public wants CCPP use to be reduced due to perceived risks. A revolution in the adoption of new technologies will reduce the need for CCPPs and move the industry toward increased sustainable agricultural intensification and regenerative agriculture. These trends have already resulted in a drastic decrease in new active ingredient registrations for CCPPs and an increase in biopesticide registrations. In my opinion, all of these factors together will lead to a drastic long-term reduction in use or the elimination of CCPPs in many markets.
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Patrick Flueckiger for editing this article.
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