Use of Herbicides Costs UK Economy £400 Million A Year: Organic Agriculture Is The Only Solution

Op-Ed by Arjun Walia

We constantly hear the banter that organic agriculture is simply not sustainable. This is not true, and that’s been made clear by a plethora of literature that’s available on the topic. What is true is that big agrochemical giants, like Monsanto (Bayer) for example, would lose billions of dollars a year if herbicides were no longer considered sustainable, or healthy. This is why these corporate entities spend so much of their revenue marketing the idea that herbicides are necessary, that it’s impossible to grow our food because of pest infestation, and that organic agriculture simply isn’t possible on a large scale, nor economically sustainable. This isn’t true either.

Scientists from the international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) have put an economic figure on the herbicidal resistance of a major agricultural weed that is decimating winter-wheat farms across the UK.

Black-grass (Alopecurus myosuroides) is a native annual weed which although natural, large infestations in farmers’ fields can force them to abandon their winter wheat — the UK’s main cereal crop. Farmers have been using herbicides to try and tackle the black-grass problem — but in many areas of England the agricultural weed is now resistant to these herbicides. The cost of black-grass heralded as ‘Western Europe’s most economically significant weed’, is setting back the UK economy £400 million and 800,000 tonnes of lost wheat yield each year, with potential implications for national food security. (source)

The study points out that four million tonnes of pesticides are used on crops worldwide every single year, and that the list of resistant weeds now number well over 200, and continue to grow. These herbicides aren’t as effective as they need to be, and their severe over-use is leading to poor water quality, a loss of wild plant diversity and an “indirect damage to surrounding invertebrate, bird and mammal biodiversity relying on the plants.” Not to mention, they are linked to a wide variety of human diseases, including several cancers, neurodevelopmental disorders and more.  The greatest example may be glyphosate, which is receiving a lot of attention because it’s being banned by multiple countries, and many people are currently engaged in lawsuits alleging that glyphosate is responsible for their health ailments. There are thousands of cases in the United States alone.

The ZSL research found the UK is losing 0.82 million tonnes in wheat yield each year (equivalent to roughly 5% of the UK’s domestic wheat consumption) due to herbicide resistant black-grass. The worst-case scenario — where all fields contained large amounts of resistant black-grass — is estimated to result in an annual cost of £1 billion, with a wheat yield loss of 3.4 million tonnes per year. (source)

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It’s important to mention the corruption that is involved with getting these substances approved. Glyphosate was recently re-licensed and approved by the European Parliament. However, MEPs found the science given to them was plagiarized, full of industry science written by Monsanto. You can read more about that here.

The corruption within the food industry and agrochemical industry is quite large, far too large scale to cover and expand upon in one article. It’s quite mind altering for any researcher who dives into it in depth on their own. The chemicals sprayed on our food and what we are doing for crops is not done for sustainability and protection, it’s simply being done for large amounts of profit, greed and control of the global food supply.

The contamination of these herbicides has become so large scale that it’s now showing up in our food, and has been for quite some time.

Lead author and postdoctoral researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, Dr Alexa Varah said,

Understanding the economic and potential food security issues is a vital step, before looking at biodiversity, carbon emissions and water quality impacts in greater detail. We hope to use this method to aid the development of future models to help us understand how British farmers battling black-grass could do it in a way that is more beneficial to biodiversity like insects, mammals, wild plants and threatened farmland bird species like skylarks, lapwing and tree sparrows — unearthing how their numbers are linked to changes in farming practices.

We need to reduce pesticide use nationwide, which might mean introducing statutory limits on pesticide use, or support to farmers to encourage reduced use and adoption of alternative management strategies. Allocating public money for independent farm advisory services and research and development could help too.

One issue that is also important to emphasize is that corporations like Monsanto (Bayer) who manufacture these herbicides have a monopoly in the area. Meaning if a natural pesticide was shown to be effective, one wouldn’t be able to implement it large scale to compete with these agrochemical companies. They completely control the market, which is unfortunate, all we are able to use is what’s been patented.

Organic Agriculture

There is a wealth of research showing that organic agriculture could produce enough food on a global per capita basis for the current world population. So why do we play with an impractical niche model in favour of an unsustainable, corporate controlled chemical-intensive model? It doesn’t seem to make much sense.

In the 2006 book The impact of organic farming on food security in a regional and global perspective, Halberg and colleagues argue that if a conversion to organic farming of approximately 50 per cent of the agricultural area in the Global South were to be carried out, it would result in increased self-sufficiency and decreased net food import to the region.

In the book Organic Agriculture for Sustainable Livelihioods (2013), Halberg and Muller suggest that organic crops provide farmers with a higher net income compared to their conventional counterparts due to lower production costs. They provide convincing evidence that organic farming has a positive influence on smallholder food security and livelihoods, which is important given that smallholder agriculture is key to food production in the Global South, where food insecurity issues seem to pop up the most.

Dr. John P. Reganold,  a Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at Washington State University writes,

Organic agriculture occupies only 1% of global agricultural land, making it a relatively untapped resource for one of the greatest challenges facing humanity: producing enough food for a population that could reach 10 billion by 2050, without the extensive deforestation and harm to the wider environment.

That’s the conclusion my doctoral student Jonathan Wachter and I reached in reviewing 40 years of science and hundreds of scientific studies comparing the long term prospects of organic and conventional farming. The study, Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century, published in Nature Plants, is the first to compare organic and conventional agriculture across the four main metrics of sustainability identified by the US National Academy of Sciences: be productive, economically profitable, environmentally sound and socially just. Like a chair, for a farm to be sustainable, it needs to be stable, with all four legs being managed so they are in balance.

In addition, organic farming delivers equally or more nutritious foods that contain less or no pesticide residues, and provide greater social benefits than their conventional counterparts.

With organic agriculture, environmental costs tend to be lower and the benefits greater. Biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and severe impacts on ecosystem services – which refer to nature’s support of wildlife habitat, crop pollination, soil health and other benefits – have not only accompanied conventional farming systems, but have often extended well beyond the boundaries of their fields, such as fertilizer runoff into rivers.

Overall, organic farms tend to have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture generally creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and is more energy efficient. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. (source)

He goes on to emphasize that,

Organic farming can help to both feed the world and preserve wildland. In a study published this year, researchers modeled 500 food production scenarios to see if we can feed an estimated world population of 9.6 billion people in 2050 without expanding the area of farmland we already use. They found that enough food could be produced with lower-yielding organic farming, if people become vegetarians or eat a more plant-based diet with lower meat consumption. The existing farmland can feed that many people if they are all vegan, a 94% success rate if they are vegetarian, 39% with a completely organic diet, and 15% with the Western-style diet based on meat.

At the end of the day, when it comes to organic farming, there is a lot of information out there that shows how sustainable it can be, and how necessary and better it is than we we are currently doing now. That being said, there is a lot of research that also conflicts with this type of viewpoint.

The Takeaway

The crazy thing about the way we produce our conventional food is that it is overall bad for human health as well as the environment. That alone such spark a shift towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly version farming, but this doesn’t seem to be the priority of our ‘leaders.’ Modern day farming isn’t about sustainability and feeding the world, again, it’s about profit, greed and having control over the world’s food supply. If the priority of our leaders was to actually feed the world in an eco-friendly sustainable way, programs would have been implemented by now. The solutions exist, that’s not the problem; so ask yourself, what is?

I truly believe that humanity has more than enough resources and potential to provide for everybody. We have more than enough resources and technology to do this, but scarcity is always pushed and taught because it holds up the current economical system we live in. We are constantly putting economic development and sustainability first, but if we were a race that put the planet and all life on it as our first priority, things would be a lot different. The entire concept of money, for example, isn’t even needed. If humanity wants to move forward, all of these systems need to collapse and be replaced with something better. This is another deep discussion, but in short, we have the solutions to our problems, the real problem we have are the barriers that prevent us from implementing them.


This article was sourced from Collective Evolution.

Arjun Walia — I joined the CE team in 2010 shortly after finishing university and have been grateful for the fact that I have been able to do this ever since 🙂 There are many things happening on the planet that don’t resonate with me, and I wanted to do what I could to play a role in creating change. It’s been great making changes in my own life and creating awareness and I look forward to more projects that move beyond awareness and into action and implementation. So stay tuned 🙂 [email protected]

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