Natural agents... just as dangerous?
Green products generally break down more quickly and cause less pollution than chemical pesticides, according to the Dutch Centre for Agriculture and the Environment (CLM). Biological agents also usually contain various substances, which makes insects less likely to develop resistance to them. At the same time, there is a great need for farmers to use greener agents. Until a few years ago, low-risk natural products (such as beer, cow's milk and plant extracts) were simply permitted in Dutch agriculture, without being subject to heavy and costly European approval procedures. That is quite justifiable. Substances that occur naturally, are fit for human consumption and are readily biodegradable cannot possibly be considered hazardous in a living farming system.
Stopping harmless green products
Unfortunately, European legislation has made it much more difficult to use products that everyone believes to be harmless - such as milk, beer or green soap. Sweet pepper growers have been using skimmed milk in their pruning and harvesting processes for decades. By immersing their hands and tools in it, they prevent the transmission of any virus from the juice of one paprika plant to another plant. Until a few years ago, regulations in the Netherlands simply allowed such low-risk green products to be used. However, those regulations did not comply with the European plant protection regulation introduced in 2011, which now makes it much more difficult to grant or renew authorisations for low-risk products. ‘It is inexplicable that you can eat garlic and yeast extracts, for example, but you cannot use them as crop protection in the fields,' says Dutch MEP Annie Schreijer-Pierik, who is committed to changing the situation that has arisen in Europe.
Legislation disadvantages small-scale and sustainable businesses
In this way, the agro-chemical industry has got what it wanted. Legislation is used to squeeze small competitors out of the market and to prevent small-scale competitive sustainable innovation. It is difficult for them to pay for European procedures of this kind. It is no surprise that 150 law firms are actively lobbying in Brussels; large companies use the law to anticipate events twenty years ahead. With legislation, they create an environment in which small players no longer have a chance. The consequences of this have been felt for years by small organic seed breeding companies and can now also be felt by farmers who want to use natural resources. This hampers the development of, research into, and deployment of existing natural resources. After all, natural resources cannot be subject to intellectual property rights such as chemical-synthetics. The costs of expensive admission procedures are not offset by income from patents and exclusive rights of use. In practice this means that almost exclusively large companies such as BASF, Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta are still in a position to develop and market new products; a highly undesirable situation from a sustainability point of view.
Natural resources can also be harmful
Green products are often safer for people and the environment, but that is not necessarily the case. Although there are fewer substances used in organic farming, there are some substances that pose a risk to the environment. It should be noted that the arsenal of pesticides is much more limited than in conventional cultivation. Despite this, organic farming is not yet 'finished'.
In organic farming, for example, the substance Pyrethrine may be used, a plant extract that kills all kinds of insects. It also kills beneficial insects such as bees. For mammals and birds, it is much less harmful than many synthetic insecticides. Pyrethrin is quickly broken down under the influence of light, so there are no harmful residues left behind. However, in order to extend the duration of effectiveness, a substance (piperonyl butoxide) is added. According to most research, this substance is low-toxic, but according to new research from 2011 it can have a negative effect on the development of children. In the Netherlands, the sales of Pyrethrin with PBO has now been forbidden. In Europe, the organic umbrella organisation IFOAM-EU is now pleading for a European ban on this substance. The organic sector has also developed a safer alternative, pyrethrine with rapeseed oil.
Spinosad is also used in organic farming and is used to combat cabbage fly. It is produced by a bacterium. It is harmless for the useful ladybirds, assassin bugs and predatory mites, but is very toxic for bees. It is therefore preferably applied at ground level so that it does not affect bees. Spinosad is quickly broken down on the leaves of the plants, but more slowly in water. It is moderately toxic to toxic for earthworms, fish and aquatic organisms. It is therefore not good for the soil either. According to the WHO, the health risk to people is minimal.
A third substance of concern is copper sulphate, which affects soil life and, in particular, kills earthworms if used in excessive quantities. On the other hand, plants and animals also need copper. Here, too, the health risk to people is low. With regards to copper sulphate, the organic sector is busy developing better alternatives.
A biological agent that turned out to be harmful to humans is Rotenon, a plant extract that was used against caterpillars. When the harmful effects became apparent, this agent was abolished in the Netherlands. Since 2007, it has no longer been permitted in Europe, either in organic or in conventional agriculture.
Promising development: microbiome instead of chemistry
It has been known by organic farmers for decades: soil is a living environment for billions of bacteria, viruses and fungi, which are important for plant health; healthy soil biodiversity creates all kinds of symbiotic processes that create a living environment in which plants can thrive. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness in both the agricultural and medical sciences that this microbiome plays a decisive role in resistance to diseases and pests - for animals, people and plants alike. In short: if the plant is growing in a soil with an impoverished soil life, it becomes ill more quickly, and is more susceptible to pests. In conventional agriculture, there is now a growing interest in using specific bacteria or fungi to combat harmful diseases. Organic farming has been doing the same for years, but in an ecological way, by stimulating the whole of soil life.