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Soil Health

Pest management in agriculture

It is estimated that without pesticides, 80% of the world’s cotton crop could be lost to pests each year.1 Growers have an obligation to protect their crops from pests to ensure that land used for agriculture is as productive as possible.

Pesticides protect crops from weeds, insects and diseases. Their use and safety are regulated across the world to manage human and ecosystem risk.

How do cotton growers use pesticides?

To avoid loss and improve production efficiency, many cotton growers have deepened their approach to pest management.2 Utilizing integrated pest management, growers use pesticides in the most appropriate way prioritizing criteria such as profitability, safety, and sustainability.

Integrated pest management helps growers carefully select the right pesticide for the right pests on the right crop, apply them only when and where necessary, and in the appropriate rates as suggested by the pesticide label. The decision to use pesticides also takes into account the pest’s damage potential, product efficacy, potential for pest resistance and the environment.

How is chemical safety evaluated?

Governments around the world scrutinize pesticides before placing them on the market. In the U.S. for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts in-depth worst-case studies – vetted by numerous third-party scientific expert review panels – to determine when, how and if a pesticide can be safely used taking especially into account interaction with humans, plants, pollinators, water, animals and protected species. To be on the safe side, the EPA exaggerates the risk for sensitive populations by including 10X safety factors.3 In Australia, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) takes a similar approach, whereby only registered and assessed products can be used, and only according to safety guidelines, established following rigorous evaluation by expert panels.4

In other areas around the world where legal protections may be less comprehensive, growers have the opportunity to engage with a host of other programs, including for example the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) which includes core principles on crop protection and criteria for using crop protection products with proper safeguards such as personal protective equipment.5

Significant Improvements in Cotton Pesticide Use

Countless improvements have been identified for pesticide use around the world. Between 1992 and 2019, Australian cotton growers have for example reduced their use of insecticides as measured in grams/bale by 97%. Australian use of all types of pesticides went down by 18.2% in just five years between 2014 and 2019.6 In the United States, cotton yield has steadily increased while overall pesticide use has remained consistent.7

One of the reasons for the significant reduction in the use of insecticides is the global introduction of Bt cotton. Bt, a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis, kills a variety of insects (chiefly worm pests) that harm the cotton plant. In the 1990s, scientists were able to move the gene that encodes Bt directly into a plant. After rigorous scientific evaluation, Bt cotton was placed on the market in 1996, allowing the plants to protect themselves with a significantly lower need for insecticides. Together with integrated pest management practices and other improvements, Bt cotton helped drive down insecticide applications in the U.S. by 66% in terms of pounds/acre between 1994 and 2019.8 Overall, while worldwide cotton production has risen, the total volume of insecticides used has declined.9

To keep this trend going, the cotton community is currently working on resolving the growing resistance to existing herbicides and insecticides, including resistance to Bt cotton. Some scientists have argued10 that pest susceptibility should be considered a shared public good, and that growers will need support from the entire value chain – similar to efforts in cover crops, and soil and water conservation – to implement sustainable pest management practices for the future. New research developing novel integrated pest management methods including a comprehensive pest management toolkit that helps maintain pesticide efficacy will continue to be important.11

To protect the cotton plant when it is first planted and is most vulnerable to diseases and pests, seed manufacturers coat seeds with minute amounts of pesticides before they are planted. This ensures that the cotton plant more efficiently receives the pesticide and greatly reduces the amount of pesticide applied per hectare at planting and the need to treat crops later. Treating the seed can help reduce the risk associated with protecting the crop at this early stage.

Growers also increasingly benefit from new pest management technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence. Blue River Technology’s See & Spray is one such example – by using cameras, sensors and other sophisticated equipment it identifies and targets only those weeds that threaten the cotton plant. Estimates suggest this could lead to a 90% reduction in chemical use.12

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  1. Oerke, E.-C., & Dehne, H.-W. (2004). Safeguarding production—losses in major crops and the role of crop protection. Crop Protection, 23(4), 275–285. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cropro.2003.10.001
  2. EPA. (n.d.). Introduction to Integrated Pest Management.
  3. EPA. (n.d.). Registration Review Process. https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-reevaluation/registration-review-process
  4. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. (2014). Chemical review process. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. https://apvma.gov.au/node/10816.
  5. https://bettercotton.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Better-Cotton-Principles-Criteria-V2.1.pdf
  6. Cotton Australia, & Cotton Research and Development Corporation. (2019). Australian Cotton Sustainability Report 2019: Snapshot. https://www.crdc.com.au/sites/default/files/pdf/Sustainability%20Report%20snapshot.pdf.
  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service Quick Stats (2020).https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/ 
  8. Gould F, Brown S. B., Kuzma J. (2018). Wicked evolution: Can we address the sociobiological dilemma of pesticide resistance? Science 360, 728–732; Ervin D, Frisvold (2018). GB: Are Community Based Approaches to Manage Herbicide Resistance Wisdom or Folly? Choices, 31:1–8.
  9. Field to Market. (2020). Trends in Pest Management in U.S. Agriculture: Identifying Barriers to Progress and Solutions Through Collect Action. https://fieldtomarket.org/media/2020/02/Field-to-Market-Trends-In-Pest-Management-Report-Feb-2020_WEB.pdf.
  10. Bennett, C. (2017). Robotic Weed Killer Nears Farmland. AgWeb.  https://www.agweb.com/news/crops/crop-production/robotic-weed-killer-nears-farmland.