Editor’s Choice 56:7: Can agri-environment be successful in a pesticide world?

Executive Editor, Marc Cadotte, provides an insight into the important research of Humann-Guilleminot et al. Their recent article, A nation‐wide survey of neonicotinoid insecticides in agricultural land with implications for agri‐environment schemes, is our July Editor’s Choice.

In response to general concerns about the impacts of agricultural activities on native biodiversity and ecosystem health, European jurisdictions have implemented agri-environment schemes that regulate and mitigate agricultural activities to ensure that biodiversity conservation is sustainably compatible with food production. These including subsidising organic farming and requiring land that is set aside to provide ecological services (buffer strips, ponds, etc.). However, despite these schemes, agricultural practices can have broader environmental impacts that might have negative consequences for land set aside or converted to organic farming (Josefsson 2015; Zimmermann & Stout 2016). This is especially true with the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers that can be transported by wind and water and can harm biodiversity and reduce the efficacy of setting land aside from such practices (Rohr & McCoy 2010; Rohr et al. 2013).

Bombus lapidarius_Jean-Yves Humbert
Photo by Jean-Yves Humbert

Neonicotinoid insecticides are the most widely used pesticides in the world and certain forms have elicited widespread concerns about non-target and sublethal effects on both invertebrate and vertebrate communities in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Transport of neonicotoids to organic farms and protected lands can negatively impact the biota that these agri-environment schemes are meant to protect and technically cause these lands to contravene the spirit and legal demands of these schemes.

In this Editor’s Choice article, Humann-Guilleminot and colleagues sampled conventional and organic farms, as well as ‘ecological focus areas’, or refuge lands set aside for services, from 62 different farms in Switzerland for five different neonicotinoid insecticides. They detected neonicotinoids in 93% of organic farmlands and in 80% of lands that were set aside. Further, they showed that substantial numbers of beneficial invertebrates were exposed to these pesticides even on organic and refuge lands.

These findings need to serve as a warning to agri-environment schemes that are designed to promote sustainability by increasing organic farming and creating refuge areas. The widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides in agri-ecosystems can potentially result in harmful non-target effects on beneficial invertebrate species, even those on lands protected from insecticide application. Furthermore, these spatially diffuse effects threaten the ability of organic farmers to produce pesticide-free products, further threatening their livelihoods. Humann-Guilleminot and colleagues call for a reasonable reduction in the application of neonicotinoid insecticides in agri-ecosystems.

The full Editor’s Choice article, A nation‐wide survey of neonicotinoid insecticides in agricultural land with implications for agri‐environment schemes is free to read in issue 56:7 of Journal of Applied Ecology.

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