There’s a buzz about insecticide free farming –
is the new 2023 SFI
standard achievable?

There is plenty of evidence that insecticide use has damaged biodiversity. But can insecticide free farming ever be compatible with the intensive production we need to feed our nation? AF analyses what could – and cannot – be possible.

2023 ELM update

You will have seen the new ELM update published in January. Among the new Sustainable Farming Incentives (SFI) is £45/ha for ‘No use of insecticide’ to support ‘Biodiversity’.

Let’s set aside the economics of the offer. Even for the most committed regenerative system no insecticide is quite a commitment. AF reported in AF weekly ‘Gleanings’ on 20th June that a successful Kenyan system, with push and pull crops to encourage stemborer moths away from maize crops, has been established.

Closer to home, in the West Country, Somerset farmer and Duchy of Cornwall tenant and LEAF demonstration farmer Jeremy Padfield has been insecticide-free on his farm for seven years.

Post 1945 insecticide boom

Long term panic followed disruption to food supply chains during and after WWII. Governments promised there would never again be large scale food shortages, and so the boom began in development of improved crop varieties, technology and crop protection. Yields increased.

Unexpected consequences

Whilst there is now a super-abundance of food in some parts of the world, the boom did come at a cost. It has long been established that insecticides can leach into water courses, stay as residues in foods and cause harm to non-target species.

A 2011 study by Meehan et al published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the US, counterintuitively found a “positive relationship between aphid abundance and insecticide use”. That is to say insecticides were killing the aphid’s natural predators, so aphids were abounding!

Case studies

Conventional farming systems going insecticide free is starting to be less unconventional.

In his 2022 paper on pesticide-free wheat production, Robert Finger cited the producer organisation IP-Suisse in Switzerland. Their aim is to produce 20% of Swiss wheat under pesticide-free conditions. This is done primarily by crop rotation and using resistant varieties. However, they do not preclude the use of pesticides for the rest of the rotation, only the wheat.

Jeremy Padfield farms a former dairy farm, and his fields are predominantly between 3 and 4 hectares. With wildlife margins and companion cropping he is able to encourage predators, and draw pests away from his crops. Companion cropping in OSR for instance is typically buckwheat and fenugreek, or clover and vetch. The farm has been in CS for 25 years, and hedges are cut every three years to encourage biodiverse habitats. Where he has fields over 4ha he is now trialling assist strips, this has had the added advantage of removing a run of telegraph poles from the cultivated area.

AF Member Holkham Estate is also going insecticide free on the 65% of their arable hectarage closest to the coast. As reported in Farmers Weekly in May, they are still in the learning stages, but BYDV resistant wheat and barley varieties are being grown. Additionally, the no-insecticide approach has encouraged beneficial insects like hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and parasitic wasps which feed on aphids. This is an advantage as the Estate looks to natural solutions for aphid borne disease.

What are lower risk options for reducing synthetic insecticide use?

Some options for insecticide free farming have been looked at already, and all revolve around Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – crop rotation, promoting/introducing beneficials and companion cropping.

To remove insecticides completely will undoubtedly result in a reduction in yield, although clearly input costs will also reduce, which protects farmers margins. So, as is very often the case the most practical resolution to reducing insecticide usage – or at least reducing the risk of unintended harm to habitats and non-target species – is a blend of technologies.

Farmers will be targeting more precisely, whilst also using crop rotation, companion cropping and promoting beneficial insects to help control the pest problems.

Changing trends and techniques are very much on the radar of our AF Crop Protection team, so that you can get what you need to implement your pest control strategy for your crops. They’re here to help so get in touch by email or call 01603 881 906.

Save money. Save time.