Fake Banner
    When Increased Pesticide Use Is A Good Thing
    By Steve Savage | October 8th 2012 01:08 PM | 28 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

    View Steve's Profile
    A recent study published in Environmental Sciences Europe has attracted attention because it documents a net increase in pesticide use on genetically engineered crops in the US.  The author, Chuck Benbrook, is certainly qualified to consider pesticide issues, and I have had positive interactions with him over the years; however as an organic advocate he has a very different perspective on pesticides than I do.

     Chuck is certainly not alone in his assumption that pesticide use is, by definition, something undesirable.  That is an assumption that deserves to be challenged.  There are some patterns of pesticide use that are problematic, but there are many more in which the pesticide serves a positive purpose that far outweighs any associated risks.

    Sprayer image from the USDA


    Why Even Bt Crops Were About Alternative Pesticide Use, Not "Reduced" Pesticide Use

    Throughout the history of biotechnology in agriculture, I have been uncomfortable with the way that many of its advocates claim that "reduced pesticide use" is one of the primary arguments for the use of the technology.  First of all, even the Bt crops which even Benbrook credits for reduced foliar sprays (Bt cotton and European Corn Borer resistant corn) were not actually about eliminating pesticide uses - they were about delivering a different kind of pesticide efficiently via the plant itself.  In fact in the Western Corn Belt, the introduction of Bt corn lead to yield increases because much of this new "pesticide use" via the seed was on acres which were normally untreated in the past.  The various caterpillar pests of corn and cotton are real challenges for crop production and they are not going to go away.  Pesticides, whether delivered via chemical applications or plant expression, are good and useful tools because they preserve yield and thus increase the efficiency of all the other inputs to the crop (land, water, fuel, fertilizer, labor...).  

    Some Perspective On Scary Sounding Big Numbers

    It is an unfortunate reality that most people don't know how to think about very large or very small numbers.  The gleeful interpreters of Benbrook's study from the Food Movement (e.g. Tom Laskawy at Grist) leap on evidence of an impressive sounding number of increased pounds of pesticides used on biotech crops. 404 million pounds sounds like something huge, but not when put into the perspective of the area involved.   This 404 million pound figure is Benbrook's overall estimated increase on the hundreds of millions of acres of biotech crops over the 15 year period between 1996 and 2011.  That works out to something like four ounces per crop acre per year. Even if it were four times that value, it would represent 0.00002 pounds per square foot.  Just for additional perspective, an organic vegetable crop might easily be treated with several copper fungicide applications at the rate of six pounds/acre each season.  

    When It Comes To Pesticides, There Are Pounds And There Are Pounds

    To his credit, Chuck Benbrook points out that "in light of its generally favorable environmental and toxicological properties, especially compared to some of the herbicides displaced by glyphosate, the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risk."  Benbrook knows what many people do not, which is that pesticides differ from one and other by orders of magnitude in terms of their various toxic properties to us and to non-target organisms.  Thus, any time that one hears about an increase or decrease in pesticide use, it is crucial to ask what chemistries are involved.  For instance, the biotech corn hybrids that have been introduced with resistance to Corn root worm (actually a beetle) have been a plant-delivered pesticide alternative that reduced the need for some older organophosphate chemicals which are more problematic than most modern insecticides.  For resistance management purposes and for secondary pests, there is actually the need for increased use of some alternative soil insecticides or seed treatments.  Once again, the constant goal is to adequately control economically important pests, and over time to do so with lower and lower risk options.


    Why Increased Herbicide Use Can Be A Very Good Thing


    When it comes to herbicides, increased "pesticide use" can be a very good thing from an environmental perspective.  In the early eighteenth century, an English agronomist named Jethro Tull began promoting "horse hoe husbandry" which was essentially the innovation of planting crops in neat rows and using mechanical devices like plows and harrows to control the weeds growing in between.  It revolutionized agriculture, but also put farming on a track towards serious environmental impact.  Plowed soils are susceptible to erosion which leads to declining soil quality, sedimentation of waterways, and ultimately to movement of soil-associated fertilizer and pesticide residues into surface water.  In later, mechanized agriculture, plowing was also associated with significant fuel usage. Probably the single most important advance for sustainable farming has been the elimination of plowing and other soil disturbances which is achieved through methods such as "no-till farming."  The introduction of herbicides in the 1960s, farmers, equipment companies and chemical companies began to develop ways to grow crops without tillage (no-till).   Herbicide tolerant crops greatly enhanced farmer's ability to adopt these methods since the mid 1990s.  This is clearly a case where "more pesticides" means a better environmental outcome.  This is exactly what is going on as an result of the increase that Benbrook documents.  It is a good thing and a positive result of biotechnology.

    Benbrook Is Almost Certainly Underestimating The Increased Pesticide Use On US Row Crops

    The USDA pesticide use reporting, on which Benbrook relied for much of his analysis, ended during the Bush administration around 2006.  This is unfortunate because it failed to capture a substantial increase in pesticide use that has occurred in response to the unprecedented increase in agricultural commodity prices since 2007/8.  US row crop agriculture has always been a relatively low-use chemical market from an agricultural chemical perspective.  For the big US crops like corn and soybeans, there have historically been very few sprays of insecticides or fungicides.  US and Canadian wheat production involved even fewer.  In Europe, between high yield potential, crop subsidies, and wet weather, pesticide use is vastly higher on wheat and other crops than in the dominant US row crops.  However, in recent years as corn, soy and wheat prices have risen to levels several times higher than in the past, American farmers have been able to economically justify in-season sprays of fungicides and insecticides to prevent pest-related losses that would have simply been tolerated in the past.  The chemicals that they are using for these sprays are in the "not scary" category, and thus their usage is a good thing for the critical role that the US and Canada play in the global food supply.


    To reiterate, pesticide use or its increase are not automatically undesirable things.  It depends on what is the alternative and what is the nature of the particular pesticide in question.  Plant biotechnology is just one important tool in the bigger tool box of agriculture.  Sometimes it allows farmers to use a more attractive pesticide option (Bt Sweet Corn would the be best example of this).  Sometimes it helps them with the adoption of sustainable practices that depend on relatively low risk herbicides.  For farmers, biotechnology and pesticides are not an either/or.  They are often partners.
    Sprayer image from the USDA.  You are welcome to comment here and/or to write me as savage.sd@gmail.com

    Comments

    Thor Russell
    This really is sounding like cheerleading rather than attempting to provide some kind of balance. An obviously major reason people are concerned about increased pesticide resistance is because of increasingly resistant weeds, and this point is hardly addressed if at all in this article. Basic knowledge of biology suggests that such resistance will accelerate as it does with antibiotic resistant bacterial etc.
    Thor Russell
    I disagree with that premise. I don't think people in general are overly concerned with "super weeds." I think that they care about what they eat. I do believe that resistant weeds are a problem, but I don't care to blow it out of proportion, nor do I believe that we are in any worse place having glyphosate reistant weeds than we would be without RR crops in the first place. If pig weed is a problem, it's problem in any no-till system except when you can kill it w/ an herbicide and not kill your crop. It begs the question of how did farmers deal with pigweed before roundup? Can't we go back to that? I realize the answer may be increased tillage or different resistant crops, but I just can't see the huge controversy here. At worst we end up where we would have been if glyphosate resistance had never been invented.

    sdsavage
    Pest resistance development is a constant battle and always has been long before biotech.  In fact, most plants have their own pest control chemicals and their worst enemies have overcome them.  The key is resistance management via rotations or combinations.  Not enough of that was done with glyphosate.  There are pre-emergence options and herbicides with selectivity not by biotech means.  Those are just trickier to use because you need to know exactly what weed issues you have and the timing is less flexible.  Growers will figure it out.
    Steve Savage
    Gerhard Adam
    My problem with this whole thing stems from the fact that it seems like issues are perpetually being "sold" as other than what they are.  I'm not concerned about the fact that we need to control pests to increase yield.  I'm more concerned about how claims are made that are later downplayed, because they were never true as presented.

    As a result, it is a legitimate question to look at how much pesticide/herbicide use actually occurs with various means of production beyond simply GM foods.  In particular, because it is looking increasingly that GM foods don't present any clear advantage to anyone except the seed producers [special environmental niches being excluded]. 

    Despite all the claims made, I haven't seen any real economic comparison between different modes of production that includes GM crops.  After all, it seems that it should be a trivial matter if yields have increased as dramatically as claimed, to make a rather sound argument regarding these benefits.  I'm sure the data exists someplace, but it's surprising that advocates have done such an incredibly poor job of bringing forth such information.
    Growers will figure it out.
    No they won't.  This is not a reassuring statement.  Growers will behave just as every other element in food production will, and that is to maximize their economic positions.  If doctors couldn't figure out antibiotic resistance, do you really think growers will care about herbicide resistance?  They will do what everyone else does .... assume that new technological developments will address these issues.
    Pest resistance development is a constant battle and always has been long before biotech.
    On a different note, it's no longer the same because we've changed the rules of the game.  In the past, there was a co-evolutionary process involved, however if we are "designing" the genes or introducing them into novel situations, we are effectively accelerating the process by which this "information" can become available to other lifeforms.

    I am much more concerned about genetic dispersal, primarily with those GM products that won't even involve food directly.  One can readily imagine the catastrophic consequences of a crop becoming contaminated by a pharmaceutical gene from a related plant. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    sdsavage
    The last I checked many years, no companies were still pursuing bio-pharma crops in the field.  That is just one of the rational choices that was made.  
    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    OK this sounds more nuanced, but significantly different to what you wrote in the article. To give an analogy of your main point in the article: Say there is a sudden spike of people seeing the doctor and suggestions of a new flu going around. You then make the point that more people seeing the doctor is not necessarily a bad thing because in boom economic times more people see doctors because they can afford to. Possibly true but also possibly seen as insulting to the intelligence of the readers. Pesticide resistance is at least part of the cause of increased pesticide use, and people want to know where that is heading.
    So coming back to pest resistance, of course it has been a constant battle, that is a very good reason to talk about glyphosate and GM in that context. So the obvious question is why was that not done enough with glyphosate and did GM "roundup ready" crops and all the marketing and commercialization make that better or worse? It sure didn't seem to me like round up ready crops where promoted like something to be used sparingly, but more like a magic bullet. Scientists in favor sure presented it in that way in the articles I remember reading and now that pesticide resistance is getting worse, they have lost credibility because of that.


    So the really important question that I see avoided or not discussed is how will things pan out.
    With the current trends how long before glyphosate stops being effective at any practical concentration for certain crops? And if "roundup ready" has increased the use of roundup and hence the speed at which resistance has happened, then how much future yields will be lost as a result.

    It may be the case that roundup ready has increased yields and usage in the short term but decreased the benefit farmers will achieve in total in the long term because of such increased resistance. You cannot be sure that GM has not in fact reduced the overall benefit we will derive from glyphosate as a consequence. To be balanced, anyone claiming an x% increase in yield from roundup ready should also discuss the x% cumulative increase in resistance as a result. 

    Growers by themselves cannot figure this out and the short term benefit vs long term benefit is arguably at least partly a wider societal issue anyway.
    Thor Russell
    sdsavage
    Thor,The roundup ready trait was not about yield as such.  It made weed control far easier in terms of timing and scouting to identify the species in the field.  It made economic sense too the way it was priced.  In dry areas in the Western Corn Belt, it did lead to higher yields because of facilitating no-till which retains more soil moisture.

    I think you underestimate growers.  I don't know if you have met many of them, but those I've met are quite sophisticated and given a decent tool box, they do just fine.
    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    That still doesn't address my central point. 
    If you accept that roundup ready leads to higher pesticide use, then it very likely leads to increased resistance. How much faster does resistance develop in the two scenarios? Roundup ready used vs not used? Of course weed control is much harder in the long term if pesticide resistance evolves faster. I have not seen this concern factored into discussions of the merits of roundup ready. Its an obvious point however and no amount of sophistication or stupidity on the part of a grower changes this.

    Growers may also have different values to the general public and therefore of course different actions and outcomes will result. They may not weigh up the positives and negatives of easier weed control now vs much harder in 30-50 years in the same way the general public may. Its legitimate to ask what situation we want growers to operate in and if increased pesticide resistance in the future is being properly valued. It seems to be ignored and given no financial negative value in discussions I have seen.

    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    I think it's important to recognize that farmers aren't the only people dealing with plants.  If herbicide resistance spreads, then it encompasses more areas, more plants become exposed, and more problems are created as individuals attempt to control their plant pests.
    At worst we end up where we would have been if glyphosate resistance had never been invented.
    That's like arguing that antibiotic resistance isn't a problem because at worst we end up where we would have been with no antibiotics.  Is that really where you want to be?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    A point about how information is presented, you say:"404 million pounds sounds like something huge" and you are dead right, that is just a meaningless number, it is framing and does not inform. However then you compare 0.00002 pounds per square foot. to six pounds/acre. You have mixed units up a bit, but more importantly missed the very informative measure, the % increase in pesticide use in that time. That is more important to me than either the 404 million or the 0.00002 number. Both of them tell me little. 
    Thor Russell
    sdsavage
    Ok, then take Benbrook's number.  He said it was a 7% increase.  That isn't some huge phenomenon.  It makes good press in the European literature and in the "green" news, but it isn't worthy of the noise.  Again, I'm guessing there have been double digit increases in US fungicide use in corn and wheat since commodity prices have gone up.  It is still small compared to Europe or Japan (subsidies...), but it is a part of how growers keep increasing yields.  Again, these are increases in the use of chemistry that is extremely low in mammalian toxicity and very soft on the environment.  
    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    OK if it was a 7% increase per decade or so and in 100 years time you would just need to double the amount you use to stay where you were in terms of effectiveness then it would be fine. However the evidence to me suggests that things are moving much faster than that, and this is being denied and glossed over.
    For example:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=genetic-engineering-match-weed-resistance
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=update-resistance-bites-again

    So where are the long term calculations and best guess predictions of what will acquire resistance and when?
    (It doesn't matter if you can drink roundup for breakfast, if it stops working due to resistance then it is no use.)


    Your point about increasing fungicide use to keep increasing yields doesn't make complete economic sense. Assuming growers are smart, they are already using the optimal amount of fungicide etc for maximum profit. Now that optimum and hence yield will increase if the price increases, but it will also go down if the price drops, so it is not a process that will keep increasing yields, but instead make yields go up when the price is high, but drop again if it goes down. A side issue to resistance of course.
    Thor Russell
    sdsavage
    Thor,The growers do use the optimal amount to the best of their ability to predict the price they will get.  This season, if you were a corn grower in one of the few areas that got decent rainfall, you did whatever it took to preserve your extremely valuable yield.  If the price drops, then growers will draw back on spending wherever they can.  They are what economists call "pure price takers" in the sense that they have no leverage in the system. The best they can do is to have some on-farm storage and/or to play the commodity markets.  I'm sure that none of us "arm chair quarterbacks" can even imagine taking the economic risk that these folks take every year to feed us. 
    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    You are saying pretty much the same thing as me none of which supports your claim that this is part of a process to continually increase yields. 
    Anyway, can you address the main point that I have brought up twice now? That is to do with increasing resistance how it will be predicted going forward and how the use of roundup ready affects that.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Steve

    You had mentioned rotation as a vehicle for postponing herbicide resistance, but the question I have is how is going to occur when the seed producers don't have multiple herbicides?  Presently all the seed crops tolerate the same herbicide, so rotating crops does no good.

    So unless a seed producer has several different herbicide tolerant seeds on the shelf, then what is the basis by which a sufficient degree of rotation and separation of use can occur?  It seems that any group of growers that doesn't follow a sufficient degree of variation will ultimately promote herbicide resistance and no action will prevent it from occurring.  Once it becomes pervasive in any plant species, I suspect that it will spread readily [presuming that the genes don't actually "escape" and promote the problem].

    The difficulty here is that whether glyphosate is harmful to humans or not, I don't expect that it will be viable for very long.  Even a few decades will result in different herbicides being required, which will require more radical and diverse solutions.  Yet, once we are locked into a particular plant variety/genetics, then there won't be any choice or options in how to proceed.  As a result, we may well face the situation of having to accept greater and greater risks because we've pursued an aggressive production path that we can't sustain.

    I can think of no human system that hasn't resulted in higher "costs" [at almost every level] despite the initial improvements that were promised.  These systems all begin with high hopes, and increasingly require more and more resources for fewer and fewer benefits.  In short, every "solution" has invariably resulted in producing more difficult problems to be solved. 

    I realize that many will respond by suggesting that this viewpoint is simply pessimistic and will lead nowhere except to avoid new technologies and never implement anything.  However, I would counter that by asking for a more explicit explanation of what problems are we actually attempting to solve.  Not a general sales pitches, but a specific examination of what the problem is and how our proposed use of technology is going to solve it.

    I suspect that if we took that approach we would find that many of these proposed "solutions" haven't actually been thought through in terms of whether they will actually work or how we will measure success or failure.

    In short, when someone talks about the benefits of biotech, they are giving a sales pitch.  When someone articulates an actual problem to be solved, and then suggests how biotech may help solve that problem, then we're beginning to use science.  However, we also need to weigh such solutions against other choices, otherwise it's simply a different flavor of advocacy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    sdsavage
    Gerhard
    You say: _"Even a few decades will result in different herbicides being required, which will require more radical and diverse solutions.  Yet, once we are locked into a particular plant variety/genetics, then there won't be any choice or options in how to proceed.  As a result, we may well face the situation of having to accept greater and greater risks because we've pursued an aggressive production path that we can't sustain."


    Decades are huge in agronomy and massive change in that time frame is normative.  New options arise and they are not usually "more radical" than what they replace.  This is a biological system and it changes over time.  No one is "locked in" to any particular genetics.  Its a highly competitive market with highly innovative companies as players.  Historically, the options we have been getting over time are lower and lower risk.  


    I've got to ask since your a such a frequent commenter on ag topics.  Are you involved in ag in any way or have detailed knowledge of what goes on there?  


    Steve Savage
    Gerhard Adam
    I've got to ask since your a such a frequent commenter on ag topics.  Are you involved in ag in any way or have detailed knowledge of what goes on there?
    Actually I tend to comment on a variety of threads, although probably those with a biological angle more than others.  My involvement with ag would hardly be in any professional capacity.  If anything, my involvement is more on the animal side [although, again, not professionally].  In the case of animals I've seen all manner of "shortcuts" taken, often to the detriment of the animals, simply to make more money.  There's absolutely no reason to believe, especially to those farmers that are financially constrained, any different behavior. 
    Decades are huge in agronomy and massive change in that time frame is normative.  New options arise and they are not usually "more radical" than what they replace.  This is a biological system and it changes over time.  No one is "locked in" to any particular genetics.  Its a highly competitive market with highly innovative companies as players.  Historically, the options we have been getting over time are lower and lower risk.
    I think this is where I differ in the assessment.  We don't actually have a long history in this area, because much is becoming more specifically controlled with options becoming fewer as biotech attempts to narrow the markets and choices available.  Part of the market is specifically attempting to lock farmers into particular genetic strains, so it would seem improbable that we would see an increase in diversity rather than a decrease.  The less diversity the greater the potential for being "locked" into particular ways of managing this.

    Yes, biological systems change which is precisely the problem.  As has been mentioned already, we saw the same thing happen with antibiotics, and we have not seen an increase in better antibiotics to cope with it, we've seen an increase in risk at both the disease level as well as the treatment level.  Furthermore this presumes that our genetic modifications don't create alternate evolutionary trajectories which may introduce new and different problems that we never anticipated. 

    Phrases like "highly competitive" and "highly innovative" are meaningless concepts in organizations whose sole purpose is to make a profit.  This isn't to denigrate profits, nor businesses, however it is intended to point out that if there is no opportunity to make money, then no amount of competition or innovation will result in companies attempting to solve these problems.  Therefore we have a history of companies abandoning such technologies when they are no longer profitable, leaving it to others [i.e. government] to try and create incentives to deal with these issues.  Again, this is precisely what we see with the pharmaceuticals and the development of new antibiotics.

    Despite many quaint notions of economics that float around, the simple reality is that corporate success occurs by removing, not increasing choices.  Every option that might be done for "free" must be eliminated in order to produce the best competitive economic model.  Again, this isn't some grand conspiracy, but common sense, when you consider that no one can enter a market where the customer has the option of achieving the same result for free.  Therefore, such choices must be eliminated, and [in my view] this is not a good thing when biological systems are involved.

    I did find it disturbing that you would say that "decades are huge" in agronomic terms.  No, they are only huge in human economic terms.  Yet, this is precisely what we should be thinking when we embark on these choices that will have lifelong [and beyond] ramifications for the biological organisms we are tinkering with.

    Even more disturbing is the notion that somehow when these companies have their genetically unique products on the market [especially not knowing what may occur further downstream] that we [as a society] may well be locked into ensuring that such companies are protected from failure, because we've locked our ability to produce food to their economic viability.  This adds a whole new dimension to the idea of "too big to fail".
    Mundus vult decipi
    sdsavage
    Thor,The continual increase in yields is based on the whole tool box: traditional genetics, genetics now enhanced by marker assisted breeding, seed treatments, some biotech traits, fungicides and insecticide treatments as needed during the season, increased soil quality because of no-till and cover cropping and controlled wheel traffic, planting of the optimal hybrid/variety for the region, row cleaning and residue management equipment, precision fertilizer application...

    As for increasing resistance.  There are other herbicide options in terms of pre-emergence chemicals, some selective herbicides for post-emergence, new biotech herbicide tolerances coming soon...  Glyphosate resistant weeds will be an issue just as ALS inhibitor resistant weeds and every other category have been an issue over the years.  Monsanto's glyphosate franchise will diminish (though it was already generic for many years).  These are the normal dynamics of this market.

    Growers will continue to use Roundup where it works.  Hopefully they will also use good resistance management on those acres.  Where it does not they will use other options.  For really problematic weeds like Palmer Amaranth they may also use cover crops that are good at suppressing it.  

    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    OK fair enough, however I still think saying increased use of pesticide is a good thing is really stretching it. Now you may be right about Mr Market always providing the solution just when it is needed, however you certainly can't guarantee it, new antibiotics for instance havn't been that quick coming. I would like to see more discussion about whether we are making best (not necessarily them most) use out of our existing pesticides in a way that I don't see happening much at the moment.
    Thor Russell
    sdsavage
    Thor,Are you familiar with organizations like HRAC, IRAC and FRAC? (Herbicide Resistance Action Committee, Insecticide Resistance Action Committee and Fungicide Resistance Action Committee)?  These are international organizations that combine all the manufacturers and also academic experts.  The compile lists of active ingredients by mode of action and track the status of resistance to them in various pest populations.  They have come up with a numbering system to make it easier for growers to know how to rotate and mix modes of action.  Those classifications are featured prominently on the product labels.  All new chemistries now come with things like limits on the total number of sprays per season or a requirement for a mixing partner.  For instance, there is a new class of fungicide called SDHI (succinate dehydrogenase inhibitors) which is just coming into the market.  From the first day these products were sold there were resistance management rules in place.   Google those organizations and you can see that this is an extremely serious effort

    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    No I wasn't familiar with these organisations, and I think it would have been good if you had mentioned them prominently in the article. By not mentioning them you if anything implied they weren't prominent, and I don't think that was your intention.If resistance management is being taken more seriously now than it was then that is definitely a positive. I consider myself to be reasonable and if you wrote an article instead about their activities then I think you would be far more convincing to people not already firmly committed to one side or the other. Anyway perhaps material for later articles.
    Thor Russell
    sdsavage
    Good point, I will do an article on those groups in the future
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I will look forward to that too, it gets uncomfortable sitting on the fence.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Good article and discussion.
    Since economists generally value pesticide use at the macro-scale (monetary) and people value consumption at the micro-scale (health, income), they will seldom agree. From my perspective, economists often look at individual perspective as quaint.
    As a grower of GMO crops and the use of herbicides and pesticides, my decisions are greatly influenced by the macro-conditions around me. Growers will figure it out, just like stock brokers on Wall Street figure it out; minor events or collapses occur, they adjust. But we need to be smarter than just pushing everything to the nearest brink and then adjust. Many farmers, just like many stockbrokers will pick up the immediate gain whether that gain will cause harm to the ecological system or the economic system. In the old days, when we were comfortable that my farming operation and all its outputs were mine only work when we were able to ignore the reality of outputs. It is hard to get one's mind around a new paradigm and many will refuse outright.

    I've mentioned this on other threads before, but it's an experience worth repeating because it has affected my views on pesticides tremendously.

    I once considered myself an "organic" gardener. It just "made sense" that, because pesticides are "toxic," they should be avoided. I saw first-hand working at an organic farm how one could raise crops without pesticides...whoops. Actually, we used pesticides quite a bit on the organic farm, usually the same ones: Pyganic and Neem. They were not very effective: I'd spray the eggplants one day with the Pyganic, and the next day I'd come back to find Colorado potato beetles eating the plants again.

    I also saw first-hand the kinds of crop failures that can occur with little-to-no pesticides use. In 2009 the farm lost every single tomato plant to late blight.

    Then I started a (very) small CSA operation with four other old-timers like me, and I began to rejuvenate our little 65-tree apple orchard. I've seen entire crops of apples destroyed by scab fungus. I've seen every insect pest you can imagine. I began to do my research.

    I attended workshops, got my pesticides applicator's license, talked to people. There's a large apple grower in our state who grows both organic and "conventional" apples (silly word, that). His one hundred acres of organic apples are surrounded by three hundred acres of "conventional" apples. He sprays the three hundred acres with his non-organically-certified pesticides twelves times per season, leaving a buffer for the "organic" apples.

    He sprays his one hundred acres of organic apple trees with organically-certified pesticides twenty-two times per season! "Those trees are not healthy," he said during the workshop. "They only produce 25% of what the conventional trees produce."

    So why does he grow them? Because of the "market" for organic produce which is very pricey and largely the product of lies told by groups like the Environmental Working Group, who make people think conventionally-grown apples are "poisonous."

    I've begun using Integrated Pest Management on our apple trees. This means I do a lot of "sanitation" in the orchard to get rid of the leaves and apples that spread the pests around. I basically have to maintain the orchard myself, with not much in the way of sophisticated equipment--a tow-behind sprayer with a nozzle and long hose. I walk tree-to-tree, spraying Captan fungicide, and the insecticides Imidan, Sevin and Malathion.

    It has taken me three years to bring the orchard back into productivity, but there is still work to be done.

    The long-and-short of it: I love pesticides, for when they're used wisely they make farming possible.

    I read with great interest your article. As you said that pesticide use must be assessed by taking into account the alternative and the nature of the particular pesticide in question, let me indicate a paper among others that address these issues, at least in part. This paper deals with GM crops, herbicide use, glyphosate-tolerant crops, and weed resistance to glyphosate in the USA, but not with all GM crops in the U.S. (mainly with HT soybean).
    Let me give the references of this paper that may be of interest to some readers:
    Bonny S. 2011. Herbicide-tolerant Transgenic Soybean over 15 Years of Cultivation: Pesticide Use, Weed Resistance, and Some Economic Issues. The Case of the USA.
    Sustainability, 3(9), 2011, pp. 1302-1322.
    DOI:10.3390/su3091302
    Freely available at:
    http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/9/1302/

    S. BONNY, INRA (National Institute for Agricultural Research, France)

    sdsavage
    Dr Bonny,I just read your very well researched paper.  I think you presented a rather balanced assessment of the economics, history and biology here.  I think with hindsight we can all see that glyphosate tolerance might have been managed better, but in fact there were many voices at the time encouraging growers to continue to use other tools like pre-emergence herbicides.  It took much longer for resistance to develop to glyphosate than to other herbicides such as ALS inhibitors, but biology being what it is, with that level of selection pressure this was inevitable.

    One thing I would ask is whether the differences you saw in the EIQ are actually significant.  I suspect those are all relatively low values compared to something like the insecticides from that era.  

    Also, there are other advantages of conservation tillage you didn't mention.  One is that if it is practiced continuously, the weed seed bank can be severely depleted lowering the need for herbicides.  It can also lead to better soil quality and many growers in the US this year were able to see the long-term benefits of such practices for their fate in the drought.

    Steve Savage