As UK agriculture stands at a post-Brexit crossroads, we take a look at two differing attempts to reduce and phase out pesticides in South Asia. What lessons can be learnt, for the UK’s transition from pesticide reliance to a farming system that works for both nature, and food production?

“Feed the world.” “Food security.” “Food sovereignty.”

These are the regular, (and to some extent understandable), phrases rolled out in defence of the current pesticide reliance in agriculture. Alongside cost-of-living rises, a changing trade landscape, and delicate supply chains, you can see how any government might be wary of ‘playing with’ food production.

The agrochemical industry has long-warned that reducing pesticide use threatens to devastate yields, and contribute to food insecurity. But in recent years there has been stagnation or decline in certain staple crops, (maize, rice, wheat and soybean). A recent study from BASIC, outlines “the suspected causes are the growing phenomenon of pesticide resistance, the degradation of soils and of biodiversity due to intensive agricultural production systems using pesticides, as well as climate change (which is itself worsened by intensive agricultural production systems).”

(The maintain-yield-at-all-costs narrative also manages to neatly side step the huge issue of food waste baked into supply chains in the name of efficiency and profit. Roughly one third of food meant for human consumption gets lost or wasted each year.)

Coupled with the biodiversity crisis, pressure on pollinators, and pervasive chemical pollution, the argument to find another way – and massively reduce our reliance on toxic pesticides – continues to get stronger.

But is this even possible? Or have we painted ourselves into a pesticide-reliant corner?

Two examples in South Asia, might have valuable lessons for a UK agricultural movement that wants to reduce pesticide use and “champion a way of farming which is sustainable and good for nature”.

Sri Lanka grabbed headlines with a decision to ban pesticide imports in April 2021, in a bid to become the world’s first organic-only nation. In contrast, the state of Kerala, India, banned 14 highly hazardous pesticides in 2011, but instead opted for a slower phase-out.

So, what happened?

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has been forced to reverse the decision. A hard quick ban on pesticide use, without the necessary time to build up alternative nature-friendly pest management, healthy soils, and train farmers in non-chemical pest control has arguably contributed to an imminent food crisis. Reports suggest that in the wake of the ban, thirty percent of agricultural land was abandoned by farmers. Removing the known pest and disease control, (pesticides), without the time or knowledge to transition to organic systems, has been fairly disastrous.

But, there is hope in the example set by Kerala, India.

Sadly, self-poisoning by pesticide is a common means of suicide in India. In 2011, in an effort to address the problem, the State of Kerala decided to ban fourteen Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs). HHPs are internationally recognised as “pesticides that appear to cause severe or irreversible harm to health or the environment”. In spite of opposition from the pesticide industry, warning of declines in productivity, the ban resulted in a marked reduction in deaths from pesticide poisoning.

And now, a recent study assessing the impact of the pesticide ban “has found no evidence to indicate that the 2011 pesticide bans in Kerala had an adverse effect on crop yields in the state”. In the case of Kerala, the ban was accompanied with advice on alternative methods, suggested substitutes for each of the banned pesticides, and time to transition.

As the UK decides on new sustainable farming incentives and possible pesticide reduction targets, we can look to lessons learnt in Sri Lanka & India.

Pesticide reliance is not inevitable.

Reducing pesticide use does not automatically equal food insecurity.

But reducing pesticide use cannot be looked at in blinkered isolation. Instead, we need to reorient our vision to the wider, messy web of nature. We need a farming system that encourages and harnesses the many checks and balances to pests & disease that nature provides for free. Hedgerows and wildflower strips. Healthy soils and flower rich habitats.

Nature-friendly checks and balances take time to restore, especially in land that has been managed intensively and routinely doused in chemicals. An overnight or harsh reduction in pesticides would not work. But, a robust plan to reduce pesticide use, accompanied by whole farm plans and support for farmers, is a tantalising possibility, and within our grasp.

This year The Pesticide Collaboration is working to influence the post-Brexit agriculture regime, including the new Sustainable Farming Incentives (SFI) being designed by government. The new payment schemes will reward farmers to “produce public goods such as water quality, biodiversity, animal health and welfare and climate change mitigation, alongside food production”. Reducing pesticide use is an obvious piece of the puzzle, and if we learn from Sri Lanka and India, we have the chance to make valuable contributions and changes to the future of farming and nature in the UK.

If you’re interested in working with us, e-mail Sarah Haynes, sarah(@)