One of the most effective ways to reduce the health and environmental risks from pesticides is to replace them with non-chemical methods.
Organic growing is not a system of neglect. It negates the need for synthetic pesticides by using cultural and ecological management systems as the primary control for pests, weeds, and disease, with a limited use of natural biocides of mineral, plant, and biological origin as the tools of last resort.
The pesticides used in organic systems are from natural sources and are only permitted to be used only if they rapidly biodegrade, which means that there are no residues on the products that people consume.
By using cultural and ecological methods as the primary management tools with the aims of firstly preventing pests and secondly controlling them, the use of these pesticides is minimal. Research shows that where these natural pesticides are used in organic systems the amounts are over ninety percent less than the synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming.
Proactive/Preventative Pest Management
Successful organic farming and gardening requires a whole-system approach. This means managing a crop or animal as an integral part of the production system rather than in isolation.
Good organic growing is not just a matter of substituting an organically acceptable input for a synthetic chemical. Initially some farmers convert to organic farming by using allowable organic inputs to replace chemicals. This is called Substitution Farming and it is seen as the first steps in the process of developing high output, low input organic systems. It is very useful for many conventional farmers to take this approach when they start the transition to organic farming as it is not such a great paradigm shift from their current practices.
Move to Whole Systems Approach
The best organic producers redesign their farms and gardens so that they have a series of integrated systems that prevent pests and diseases to give the crop a significant advantage.
The aim is to have a whole of systems approach that results in a resilient low input, high output production. This is where ecological sciences are applied to produce systems that fit within the paradigm of agroecology.
The primary way to reduce pests and diseases is to improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter and correcting mineral imbalances. Healthy soils produce healthy plants that resist pest and diseases and this is the main reason why organic producers can use ninety percent less sprays and can effectively use biodegradable natural products rather than residual synthetic toxins.
The greater the biological complexity designed into a production system the less the chances for pests and pathogens to colonize and dominate that system. The aim is to create robust sustainable bio-diverse systems with mechanisms that prevent and control most of the pest, disease and weed problems and help increase the bio-availability of nutrients. These types of farming systems do exist and require a minimum of input costs, making them the most efficient in returns to the farmer and the environment.
An emerging strategy for replacing pesticides, including natural ones, advocates using ecological management systems that can provide functional services, such as using natural enemies to control pests. The key is to identify these eco functions and then intensify them in production systems so that they replace the need for insecticides.
Eco-functional intensification (EFI) optimizes the performance of ecosystem services by using functional biodiversity. It is used in organic agriculture to utilize ecological processes rather than chemical intensification. A good example of this is adding insectaries into the farming system.
Insectaries are groups of plants that attract and host the beneficial arthropods (insects, bugs, spiders, etc.) and higher animal species such as birds, frogs and lizards. These are the species that eat arthropod pests in farms, orchards, and gardens. They are known collectively as beneficials or natural enemies.
Many beneficial arthropods have a range of host plants. Some useful species—such as parasitic wasps, hoverflies, and lacewings—have carnivorous larvae that eat pests; however the adult stages need nectar and pollen from flowers to become sexually mature and reproduce. Flowers provide beneficial arthropods with concentrated forms of food (pollen and nectar) and increase their chances of surviving, immigrating, and staying in the area. Very importantly, flowers also provide mating sites for beneficials, allowing them to increase in numbers.
Without these flowers in a farm the beneficial species die and do not reproduce. Most farming systems eliminate these types of plants as weeds, so consequently they do not have enough beneficials to get good pest control.
Three Good rules of thumb for designing insectaries
1. Any flowering plant that attracts bees is suitable as an insectary plant. Beneficial insects prefer species that are rich in pollen and nectar.
2. Smaller flowers are best for parasitic wasps.
3. The greater the diversity of species the more effective the insectary system.
Research has shown that it is best to weed in stages, always leaving good refuges of weeds in and around the farm, orchard or garden to ensure a healthy supply of beneficial species. Never control all the weeds at the same time as it destroys the host plants and breeding sites for the natural enemies of pests.
Eco-functional intensification is about utilizing the science of applied agroecology to actively increase the functional biodiversity in agricultural and gardening systems to deliver these services rather than using the conventional approach, based on reductionist monocultures reliant on externally sourced toxic synthetic inputs.
Simply put: grow lots of flowers in your garden or farm. Not only will it look great and attract beneficial insects, birds, lizards etc, you will end the need for using natural sprays.
André Leu is the author of the new book, The Myth of Safe Pesticides (September 2014). He is President of International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), the world umbrella body for the organic sector. His new book The Myths of Safe Pesticides is available through AcresUSA and Amazon.
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