In 1962, Rachel Carson published her ground-breaking book “Silent Spring, unearthing unintended consequences of pesticide use, namely to wildlife. It kicked off an environmental movement that prompted the crop protection industry to act. The results? Significant improvements in the safety and efficacy pesticides as well as the number and variety of offerings, including biological pesticides.
In the past 60 years, pesticides have become less toxic and persistent in the environment, yet much more effective. Products launched today use 95 percent less active ingredient per unit area than they did at the time of Silent Spring. In other words, farmers can apply lower doses of pesticides to achieve the same efficacy.
Pesticides introduced today are less acutely toxic, largely because manufacturers can screen out problematic active ingredients early in the research process. The average number of new molecules evaluated to register a new crop protection product has increased three-fold since 1995 from 52,000 to 160,000.
Pesticide testing and risk assessment also take a hard look at persistence in soil. It is measured by the number of days it takes for half of a pesticide to degrade. Persistence peaked for products introduced in the 1980s at 72 days and dropped to an average 53 days for those introduced in the 2000s. While pesticides have a certain level of persistence in the soil to ensure effectiveness against target pests, they must ultimately degrade into harmless substances.
Overall, pesticide volumes globally have remained more or less the same between 1980 and 2008 but grew thereafter due to increases in no-till agriculture, crop production in Asia and Latin America, high commodity prices, and demand from farmers to deal with increased pest threats due to climate change. Still, and more importantly, the active ingredient application rates per hectare for newer products are way down.
At the same time, the amount of food produced from every tonne of active ingredient has increased by more than 10 percent since 1980. In fact, yields across all crops have increased around 60 percent since 1960. This has happened without a significant increase in arable land cultivation. That’s because pesticides increase crop yields and production, helping to feed a rapidly growing population while safeguarding biodiverse land from converting into farmland.
The number and variety of pesticides have also increased. Sixty years ago, the crop protection industry had around 100 active ingredients in 15 chemical groups available to farmers. Today, there are over 600 active ingredients from 40 different groups. New chemical groups often bring new modes of action to address pest resistance.
The category of biological pesticides – derived from nature as in the cases of beneficial insects, pheromones and microbes – has also grown significantly. In fact, over the last 20 years, their rate of introduction has exceeded that of conventional products and this trend is likely to continue. In 2017, there were more patents for biological pesticides (173) than conventional ones (117) for the first time in history.
PESTICIDE SAFETY, EFFICACY AND OFFERINGS: 1960 vs. TODAY
|Point of Comparison
|Then (1960 unless indicated otherwise)||Now (today unless indicated otherwise)|
|Fungicide application rates (g/ha)||1,200||100*|
|Insecticide application rates (g/ha)||1,700||40*|
|Herbicide application rates (g/ha)||2,400||75*|
|Average days of persistence in soil||72 (1980s)||53 (2000s)|
|Number of years to develop a new product||8.3 (1995)||11.3|
|Number of molecules researched for 1 new product||52,000 (1995)||160,000|
|Active ingredients available||100||Over 600|
|Chemical groups available||15||40|
|Number of new biologicals introduced per year||3 (1960-90)||11 (1990-2016)|
|Total crop production: million tonnes||2,588||8,923|
|Tonnes per hectare produced||4||6+|
|Food tonnes produced per tonne of active ingredient||2,826 (1980)||3,145 (2016)|
|Per capita calorie consumption: Kcal/capita/day||2,196||~2,900|
* For new products
Today, the world’s leading manufacturers of crop protection products invest more than $3 billion annually in research and development of new products, which has been consistently high at 7-10 percent of annual sales over the last 50 years. With such high investment, companies continually improve the efficacy and safety of products to meet high regulatory standards and give farmers the tools to produce safe, abundant, affordable food.
The regulatory standards for crop protection products are stricter than ever with increased levels of scrutiny and societal expectations. In the 1960s, the focus of pesticide development was to maximize crop yield with the best possible weed, pest and disease control. Since then, statutory requirements to register pesticides have evolved to encompass much more than efficacy. Assessment of human and environmental risks are at the forefront, requiring huge quantities of data to attest to the safety of both active ingredients and product formulations. More than 150 tests are typically carried out to register a new active ingredient. Databases for most older active ingredients have been substantially updated with new studies, particularly to meet European Union, United States and other OECD member requirements. Some countries, such Brazil, China and India, have developed more robust regulatory requirements. In addition, crop exporting countries have to comply with maximum pesticide residue limits of importing nations.
In many OECD countries, products must undergo regular reviews for re-registration to make sure they align with the latest scientific knowledge and regulatory requirements. Low-income countries, which often do not have the regulatory capacity to review products, can use OECD country reviews to guide their own decisions on products.
Increased pesticide safety and efficacy combined with decreased application rates of active ingredients represent considerable achievements for the crop protection industry over the past six decades. Moreover, biological products are increasingly being used alongside conventional chemicals to protect crops. These advances bode well for the ability of the industry to contribute towards feeding 9 billion people in 2050.
Jonathan Shoham is a consultant for Phillips-McDougall agricultural intelligence based in London and author of the report “Evolution of the Crop Protection Industry since 1960.”