Plant protection: Is there a more gentle way?

Alternatives to the use of problematic pesticides such as glyphosate and co are currently being explored. © otokostic/istock

It is said that agriculture cannot achieve high yields without effective plant protection. But the use of chemical weapons is known to be problematic. Bild der Wissenschaft deals with the controversial topic of pesticide use in its July issue. The cover story examines the extent to which crops can be protected without risking nature and people.

Many consumers reject the use of “poisons”, but on the other hand they want cheap and as flawless as possible agricultural products. Many are not aware of how much their expectations can cause difficulties for farmers. At the beginning of the year, farmers gave vent to their frustration in sometimes violent protests in Brussels. This actually led to the EU Commission withdrawing a planned pesticide regulation, which would have increased the pressure on farmers. However, a solution to the problem of balancing the need and risk of plant protection is not yet in sight.

Dilemma and possible solutions in focus

In the first article of the three-part title story, bdw author Rainer Kurlemann first explains the basics of the problem. He shows that high yields cannot be achieved without effective measures to keep weeds, pests and pathogens in check. It also becomes clear that organic farming methods have not yet been able to keep up with pesticide-based conventional agriculture. Kurlemann contrasts this with knowledge of the possible risks of using chemical substances for people and the environment. He also shows how difficult it can be to assess the risks. This is why negative consequences often only become apparent during and after use. In addition, mixtures of different plant protection products can have particularly problematic effects, according to the article “How much is enough?”.

Then, bdw author Peter Laufmann takes a closer look at a plant protection product that is the subject of particularly heated debate: the weed killer glyphosate, which is also known under the trade name Roundup. He shows why this product became a worldwide success because of its initially ideal combination of effectiveness and apparent harmlessness. But then some studies attested that glyphosate had environmentally harmful and carcinogenic effects, which sparked fierce controversy: some still consider the herbicide to be indispensable, others focus on the risk. In the article “Savior or devil’s work?” Laufmann also reports on the efforts and successes in the search for alternative ways to keep rampant weeds in the fields under control.

Non-toxic alternatives

The third part of the article also focuses on the potential of new methods and means in plant protection: bdw author Christian Jung reports on approaches to making use of plants’ natural defense mechanisms against pests. One fundamental problem has been that what destroys aphids, caterpillars, etc. usually also harms harmless insects or beneficial organisms. Some research groups are therefore exploring the extent to which certain scents that some plants naturally emit can be used to deter pests – or to attract their enemies. Researchers have already achieved success in developing these and other pest control methods without poisons, but they still face a number of challenges, reports Jung in the article “Scents instead of pesticides”.

You can read the articles on the cover story “Pesticides” online as part of a bdw+ subscription, or you can find them in the July issue of bild der wissenschaft, which will be available in stores from June 21.

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