The need for farmers, scientists, regulators, and consumers to balance farming and food production systems with environmental conservation is only growing greater. In many cases, this discussion gets framed by polarized views, with one side claiming that a return to low-tech solutions and an increase in agrarianism is best, while another responds with calls for technocratic solutions. Charles Mann highlighted this duality in his book The Wizard and the Prophet (Knopf, 2018, summarized briefly in the March 2018 issue of the Atlantic). While calls for Small Scale Organic vs Conventional Industrial Agriculture make for simplified debates, in reality, farms embrace multiple practices that could fit into both systems, often on the same farm or even in the same field. Like the realization that the U.S. is not divided into red and blue states but rather heterogeneous purple communities, agriculture is actually a pretty diverse field with a range of systems used. Much research on the matter concludes that that’s a good thing.
A recent review paper by Jules Pretty in Science  highlights the benefits of adopting progressive farming practices regardless of the ‘system’ that they may be ascribed to. The author posits that Sustainable Intensification (SI) may be a preferred system of farming that uses best practices based on their ability to “[maintain or increase production] while progressing toward substantial enhancement of environmental outcomes.” By selecting practices based on outcome rather than on input origin, the restrictive ideologies of competing systems may be cast aside and solutions chosen based on progress toward sustainability goals.
SI practices highlighted in the paper include efficiency, substitution, and redesign transitions in agricultural systems. Examples of those practices include, respectively: precision farming for improved fertilizer use efficiency; selection of disease-resistant plants that obviate the need for chemical inputs; and intentional design to harness biological systems, e.g. conserving natural predators of pests or soil improvement through crop rotations that benefit agricultural systems. I suggest that many farms are already practicing SI agriculture, even if they are considered ‘Conventional’, ‘Organic’, or whatever other label one wishes to use. However, my viewpoint if often blinded somewhat by my work in apple and grape systems in the northeast U.S., in which Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a key SI practice highlighted in the paper, is a mature field and is practiced to some degree on most, if not all farms that I work with [2-4]. Under IPM, crops and pests are managed using biological, cultural, and chemical contrails as dictated by a thorough understanding of crop condition, pest and predator populations, disease cycles, weather data, and economic thresholds for pest damage tolerance
However, IPM and Precision Agriculture are not as widely adopted in many regions and on many crops as on perennial fruit in Vermont. As Pretty highlights in his paper, great gains can be made in reducing environmental impact while increasing crop productivity by employing SI practices on farms. Figure 2 of the paper presents a pretty stunning picture of the value of adopting IPM specifically on farms in Africa and Asia, where farms that adopted SI practices increased mean yields by 41% while decreasing pesticide use by 31%. The application of knowledge- (rather than chemical-) intensive pest management and crop fertility systems are low-hanging fruit to improve agricultural sustainability, if only the application of information can be applied to management before resorting to agrochemical application. Knowledge of the farm system always makes for better application of farm inputs than shooting in the dark.
This same conclusion was reached in another recent paper in Nature  in which data from over 900 farms in France was analyzed to assess trends in crop production and pesticide use. Overall, it was concluded that French farms could reduce pesticide applications by about 40% on most farms without affecting production nor profitability. That French farms are among the highest per-hectare users of pesticides in the European Union, due in no small part to the importance of disease-prone winegrapes in the country, indicates that there is room for improvement through use of IPM.
Recent public pressure to reduce pesticide use, and, by proxy, system sustainability, on farms in France and elsewhere has often called for increasing, broad-stroke restrictions on certain pesticide products and uses. However, crop protection is a critical component of SI and Conservation Agriculture programs. The elimination of pesticide and other agrochemical inputs as a response to their improper overuse fails to credit their impact on increased crop yield and reduced yield stability [6, 7]. Call for reductions in food waste, as opposed to more efficient means of production, will ring hollow if loss of crop protection materials shifts the 44% of waste from agriculture and postharvest operations presently seen in North America to upwards of 70% of waste from those functions as is seen in South/Southeast Asia Saharan Africa and which have less access to modern crop protection systems.
As we see increased scholarship that shows how best SI practices like IPM can achieve improved environmental sustainability without negatively impacting farm profitability or crop production, I hope to continue to change the conversation from a competition between polarized tribes to a discussion of the best ways to nudge farming systems regardless of ideology. Pretty’s paper is a clear indicator of the potential for combining modern crop protection with low-tech crop and pest monitoring practices to forge a better agriculture.
- Pretty, J., Intensification for redesigned and sustainable agricultural systems. Science, 2018. 362(6417).
- Moran, R., G. Koehler, D. Cooley, A. Tuttle, J. Clements, C. Smith, G. Hamilton, W. MacHardy, L. Berkett, T. Bradshaw, H.H. Faubert, and M. Concklin, The New England Apple Scab-Control Practices Survey. Fruit Notes, 2016. 81(1): p. 1-6.
- Bradshaw, T. and L. Berkett. An Initial IPM Strategy for New Cold Climate Winegrape Growers. ASHS HortIM 2017; Available from: http://hortim.ashsmedia.org/items/show/48.
- Bradshaw, T. and A. Hazelrigg. Status of IPM practice adoption in Vermont apple orchards in 2017. 2018; Available from: http://www.uvm.edu/~fruit/pubs/2017AppleIPMstatus.pdf.
- Lechenet, M., F. Dessaint, G. Py, D. Makowski, and N. Munier-Jolain, Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms. Nature Plants, 2017. 3: p. 17008.
- Oerke, E.-C., Crop losses to pests. The Journal of Agricultural Science, 2006. 144(01): p. 31-43.
- Popp, J., K. Pető, and J. Nagy, Pesticide productivity and food security. A review. Agronomy for sustainable development, 2013. 33(1): p. 243-255.