The study highlights specialists' broad knowledge of the dynamics of the areas in which they work. (Foto: Kindel Media/Pexels)
Fifteen horticulturists participated in a study that highlights the need for a more regional approach and the key role of specialists
To achieve a more sustainable food system, the European Commission has designed the Farm to Fork strategy, which proposes a 50% reduction in phytosanitary products between 2020 and 2030. The strategy reflects concern about these products' possible harmful effects on biodiversity and human health. The products, also known as pesticides, include a wide range of substances for both combating pests and eliminating weeds. The effect of the European strategy to date is not clear. This is due to the lack of data on the use of pesticides and the need to act from a more local perspective.
This was explained by Lucía Argüelles, a researcher at the Turba Lab group of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) IN3 and lead author of a study that provides a view, from a human geography perspective with a post-humanist approach, of the use of herbicides to eliminate spontaneous vegetation (weeds). The study focuses on 15 horticultural farms, both conventional and organic, in the Catalan region of Maresme, where dealing with weeds is one of the main costs and greatest concerns.
Between January and October 2021, the author conducted several in-depth interviews with the horticulturists, thirteen men and two women, and with four teams of agricultural specialists who advise them. These farmers, who are seeing a growing restrictions on commonly used herbicides, are also affected by climate change, low prices, urbanization and land speculation. All this affects how future agricultural practices are determined.
The study highlights specialists' broad knowledge of the dynamics of the areas in which they work and proposes bringing them in as key players in the achievement of European strategies with a regional perspective. It also proposes reducing the obsession with eliminating pests and weeds at all costs and instead adopting a more holistic approach that assesses when it is possible to work with them rather than against them. For a start, "we must get the idea of 'clean' or 'dirty' fields, referring to the amount of weeds, out of people's heads. We know they're beneficial for the soil and for attracting auxiliary fauna", said the author.
A more complex look
The study, which Argüelles carried out together with Hug March, member of the Faculty of Economics and Business at the UOC, was recently published in the Journal of Rural Studies. Titled "A relational approach to pesticide use: Farmers, herbicides, nutsedge, and the weedy path to pesticide use reduction objectives", the paper takes a post-humanist and relational look at the use of pesticides. "The aim is to understand the relationships that arise between various actors instead of trying to understand why a single actor, the farmer, does or fails to do something. These relationships are not one-way, and farmers' motivations are not solely economic. We've taken a wider view and seen that there are many relationships and that these change. For example, there are some weeds that aren't affected by herbicides. And there are some herbicides that affect crops accidentally," said the expert.
Focusing on the case of the Maresme region, the authors outlined how nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus), a grass that reproduces through small tubers, "has caused important changes in the management of spontaneous vegetation as, since the ban in 2005 of a pesticide called methyl bromide, it's been one of the biggest headaches for horticulturists", explained Argüelles.
Until now, she added, when it comes to regulation, farmers have been considered statically, assuming that they all make similar decisions and that these decisions in turn don't vary between crops or at different times of the year. "We must listen to them and understand their stories, which have to do with the area where they work, their family background, the ecology of their farms and their economy, but also with emotions," she insisted.
In fact, Argüelles highlighted farmers' ambivalent relationship with pesticides and even with the specialists who advise them on agronomic matters: "For example, methyl bromide was very effective, and many specialists recommended it, but it also destroyed the soil. Farmers trusted the specialists who recommended it, and this may have led to reservations, although now they're much more aware of the impact of pesticides."
A more local look
Along the same lines, the lead author of the study noted that each local situation is very different, which is why pesticide reduction plans have to be tailored to each region. And this is where, according to her, the role of the specialists hired by administrations is key: "Specialists have in-depth knowledge of local dynamics and are there to help farmers and improve the sustainability of agriculture. I think they should be involved much more in thinking about the development of these plans in each region."
A broader look
Argüelles also emphasized that the use of pesticides is not an isolated action and cannot be resolved in isolation; rather, actions must jointly address other related problems affecting agriculture: "The use of pesticides must be seen as part of a precarious agricultural system in which farmers generally have little decision-making power over their businesses."
She warned that public institutions have a long way to go to facilitate the change to pesticide-free agriculture and stop indirectly subsidizing the pesticide industry. "It's not easy for farmers to move to different customers or machinery, but what would happen if a provision stipulating that all schools had to serve organic food was enacted? Or what if each region's county council made mechanical weeding systems available to farmers?" asked Argüelles by way of illustration.
From the beach to the countryside, an original idea
The expert thus gave as an example a joint farmer-specialist work initiative. "This idea came from a Plant Protection Association. It occurred to them that the machine used to clean sand on beaches, which works like a sieve, could be used to filter nutsedge tubers. At the interviews I carried out, several conventional farmers said they'd tried it and been convinced. What this initiative demonstrates is that farmers are open to new ideas and can see the need to try new methods beyond chemicals," she said.
The risks of an uncertain future
During the interviews, the researcher found out how horticulturists feel: "They feel abandoned, economically vulnerable, they can't see a good solution to the management of weeds, and all this ends up influencing their attitude towards the government, technology and specialists. Also, they are worried about the lack of generational renewal."
According to Argüelles, all this entails significant risks: "If all these people retire without someone to take over, who will buy or rent the land? Probably big companies. This has social, environmental and biodiversity implications... Farmers are maintaining the landscape and growing very varied crops. From a purely economic point of view, this may not be the most efficient way. Having many hectares with the same crop may be more efficient. But the more homogeneous the crop, the more necessary the pesticides."
The researcher fears that, when these horticulturists retire, a significant cultural heritage and knowledge will be lost, which will be unhelpful in the fight against climate change. "These farmers know what varieties to use and how to change them, because they've already had to adapt. Losing this knowledge due to a lack of generational renewal places whatever comes next at risk. Climate change makes this local knowledge even more important", she concluded. This is precisely the focus of a new UOC research project recently funded by the La Caixa Foundation, of which Argüelles is the principal investigator.
This UOC research project supports United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, good health and well-being, 13 climate action and 15, life on land.
Lucía Argüelles, Hug March. A relational approach to pesticide use: Farmers, herbicides, nutsedge, and the weedy path to pesticide use reduction objectives, Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 101, 2023, 103046, ISSN 0743-0167, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2023.103046
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Hug March Corbella
Lecturer in the Economics and Business Studies Department
Expert in: Self-sufficient and resilient cities, smart cities, urban water management, degrowth, fab labs, ICTs and the environment (smart meters etc), citizen perceptions of environmental problems, urban farming, and new financial actors in environmental management.
Knowledge area: Urban political ecology, urban political economics.