1 September 2021

Pesticides Contribute to Sustainable Farming Practices

By Rob Rynning

Recent satellite data showed that photosynthetic activity in the U.S. Corn Belt, which extends from Ohio to Nebraska to Kansas, peaks in July at levels 40 percent greater than those observed in the Amazon rainforest. These high levels of photosynthetic activity mean that crops grown in the Corn Belt are effectively removing carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, demonstrating the power of agriculture to be part of the solution to climate change. On our farm – which is more than 100 years old and with my family for four generations – we do as much as we can to be sustainable.

Certain farming practices are better than others at improving carbon sequestration. No-till farming is the best, but it can be difficult in some areas and/or seasons. For example, it’s challenging in my area in northern Minnesota due to seeding timing. The fall is better suited to no-till farming; we can plant winter wheat with minimum or no tillage into canola stubble. But spring planting typically requires some tillage, which we do as lightly as possible to minimize soil disturbance. Many farms use vertical tillage, which is better than other types as it leaves more crop residue on the soil surface. Cover crops are also becoming more popular as they help retain soil moisture and protect the soil. But this can be tricky with wet springs because the soil must dry out some for planting.

My area has become wetter in the past 35 years with much more rainfall due to climate change. Back then, there was no corn in my area north of Fargo, N.D., but now this crop grows up to Canadian border, mainly due to increased temperatures and moisture. Frost-free days have extended by 10 days. We have to acknowledge and adapt to these changes.

Pesticides are complementary and so essential to food systems, especially no-till farming. Crop rotation and planting dates help with pest and disease control, but we still must have access to these products. Otherwise, food production could be threatened across very large regions.

Most people have no clue that eliminating pesticides would also decrease food production. Farmers use products that are as safe as possible and apply them in the safest way. Many pesticides today use less volume per acre. Their safety and effectiveness have increased dramatically in the past 20 years. Products I was once leery of no longer exist. Pesticide toxicity is much lower and safety much higher with self-contained handling systems. The way farmers handle products is better, too. For example, they wear more protective equipment. The crop protection industry, crop consultants and pesticide retailers help educate farmers and farmers better educate themselves today with at least a 2- or 4-year post-high school degree. The agricultural community is much better educated than in the past.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – a holistic approach to farming that accounts for all available tools, including pesticides – is the starting point. You want to have access to as many tools as possible to protect your crops. You want to protect beneficial insects; for example, here we have honeybees everywhere. We want to keep them around as they have a symbiotic relationship with crops. Most farmers understand that and try to do that. Awareness of IPM is greater today than ever before.

Pesticides are complementary and so essential to food systems, especially no-till farming. Crop rotation and planting dates help with pest and disease control, but we still must have access to these products. Otherwise, food production could be threatened across very large regions.

We use fungicides and insecticides when pest thresholds are reached, using best management practices. Regional forecast models developed by land grant universities help determine if fungicides will be needed. Using these models, we take preventive measures before disease onsets, not waiting until it occurs, and we always try to use science to back up our decisions. We don’t want to use pesticides if they’re not necessary for both economic and environmental reasons.

We have tried biologicals (nature-based pesticides), but they aren’t available for many of our crops. Sometimes they aren’t cost-effective either, but they hold huge promise for the future. Biological seed treatments, for example, would be great to use.

Similarly, we do soil testing to determine nutrient levels to minimize fertilizer use. We take soil probes in different field locations to determine which nutrients and how much of them we need. Some farmers even use GPS to determine variable fertilizer rates for even more precise application.

Such sustainable practices are good investments long-term regardless of climate change, but they are even more important as a result of it. Every year, there is more adoption of these practices by farmers, but they have to be regionally adapted and economically viable, sometimes requiring incentives.

These incentives and programs should be voluntary; farmers should not be forced to adhere to regulations made without their input or that don’t make agricultural sense. Case in point, the Minnesota governor required farmers to plant filter strips (grass areas near waterways) to filter runoff without paying them to do so. Many farmers view the measure as a land grab rather than a sustainable practice. While the ruling was well intended, it is very unpopular because it was not designed or implemented correctly. Mandating is seldom the answer.

The world will always need large, commodity crop production, so policies cannot seek to eliminate it. In any case, farmers will adopt more and more environmentally friendly practices like minimum and no till and cover crops. Some regenerative agricultural practices can be adopted but not in all commodity crops, nor in all areas. Regenerative agriculture is easier to apply in certain areas with certain crops. Its goals are beneficial, but policies and practices must be developed in tandem so that they are realistic. Research must determine the applicability of policies, and farmer input must influence them. Policies will not work if they are not well-researched and accepted by those who have to carry them out.

An example of good policy is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in which my farm participates. Some of our land along a river was eroding, so we took it out of production and planted native grasses. I receive yearly payments from the federal government for it. The grasses hold soil in place. This land never should have been used for agriculture in the first place; once we took it over, we put this area into CRP where it remains.

The USDA’s carbon bank initiative is also a good idea. We will participate where we possibly can. By adopting sustainable practices at every turn, we hope to keep our farm in our family for another 100 years.

Rob Rynning is a farmer in Minnesota, USA.


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