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Precision ecotoxicology for biodiversity and the reduction of bureaucracy

Biodiversität und Umweltschutz entstehen aus Wissen und Erfahrung
biodiversity and environmental protection

Why only more knowledge and information on the effects of more than just chemical pesticides can help biodiversity and farmers

Yield is also the harvest of experience

When it comes to yields and what influences them, farmers are very knowledgeable. They know their fields, their varieties, the crop protection products, the weather, current plant diseases and much more. And at the end of each year, they can see from the yield for each field whether their own judgement and actions were appropriate given the unchangeable circumstances. This creates local precision experience for the yields and the chance to do at least as well or even better in the future.

Biodiversity and environmental protection also arise from knowledge and experience

When it comes to biodiversity and environmental impact, however, the empirical situation is much worse. Even for plant protection products such as glyphosate, which have been used for decades, European expert committees have found that a clear ecotoxicological risk assessment is still not possible (Glyphosate: no critical areas of concern; data gaps identified). Insecticides that were previously used very selectively in the pelleting of seeds have been banned there, but the widespread, indiscriminate spraying of almost the same insecticides on entire fields has been permitted again, at least as an emergency solution and also in different ways depending on the EU country. The farmer’s understanding and detailed local knowledge of how to optimise biodiversity and environmental impact just as effectively as yield quickly fails.

We measure global and supraregional trends well

Es ist bekannt, dass die Insektenpopulationen zurückgehen und die Böden Humus verlieren, was zu Herausforderungen führt.
insect populations

It is well known that insect populations are declining across regions and even worldwide, that soils are still losing humus instead of storing more CO2 from the air and that groundwater pollution is still too high in many areas. But just as the yield is generated individually in each field, these challenges can ultimately only be solved locally and specifically through responsible action on a broad information basis in the individual field.

Lawnmowers instead of diversity at local lever

But the reality is different. Instead of targeted determinations of when and where exactly too much nitrate gets into the groundwater and what today’s fertilisation will mean for the groundwater in 20 years’ time, there are large red zones. They make no distinction between farmers who have used fertilisers responsibly for decades and others who have often maximised yields according to fertiliser specifications.  Many of the measures for eco-points or other environmental services that must be provided by the farmer or lead to compensation payments change at short intervals, differ from country to country (which leads to economic injustice), are hardly comprehensible from an agronomic point of view and are linked to calendar dates, for example. Especially in times of climate change and extremely fluctuating weather conditions, it should be clear that this type of rule-based micromanagement does not help to protect the environment. Nobody would think of telling a farmer by deadline when to plant potatoes, apply crop protection or harvest. At the same time, this multitude of regulations also creates mountains of bureaucracy (which should actually be reduced), forcing the farmer to sit at a desk instead of being able to look after the fields in a sensible way.

Works like chemistry. But without chemistry.

Good local action is only possible with good local feedback

How can we get out of this situation? Here are a few suggestions that are certainly not the only solution, but can provide an impetus as to which direction it makes sense to go in.

Micromanagement with centralised rules and data in a rapidly changing environment will never do justice to a highly diverse system like agriculture – and even less so in the future.

The aim must be more personal responsibility and individual action on the part of farmers, because biodiversity and soil health – just like yield – are created in every single field.

In order for farmers to assume more personal responsibility, they must be able to assess the effects of their actions as well as possible. This also applies to environmental protection and, for example, soil health. There are extremely large deficits here. Even for known herbicides (see above), the effects on insects are still frighteningly unclear. The risk assessment for insecticides is often not much better.  Here too, the effects of individual PPPs are more complex and, for example, temperature-dependent (DE: Major challenges for small soil organisms Drought and high temperatures make fungicides more toxic) or there are previously unexpected effects in deeper soil layers without large product concentrations (DE: Assessment of the risk to soil organisms under real conditions).

Consequently, in many cases even the general patterns of impact are unclear and even less so the specific local effects. There will still be many surprises – if we were to measure them.

This brings us to one of the key challenges. There is no precision ecotoxicology and precision ecology. But that is exactly what we need for biodiversity and soil health as part of precision agriculture, as well as for field cultivation and yield. Precision does not mean measuring or knowing EVERYTHING, but using effective tools to achieve the best possible information at the lowest possible cost. A GPS of biodiversity and environmental protection would be ideal.

Impact data of procedures are important, although not a chemical plant protection product, has nevertheless carried out extensive studies on its influence on earthworms, springtails, soil mites and soil bacteria during electrophysical siccation. No influence was found. Farmers also need reliable general data on the effects of ploughing, tilling, cultivating and other methods on soil life on soils that are at least similar to their own for optimisation purposes. It is known that ploughing and large-scale soil movement through potato cultivation and sugar beet, for example, can reduce the number of earthworms by up to 50 %. Nevertheless, there are farmers who, thanks to decades of soil care, have 50 to 200 earthworms per square metre without any problems, even with potatoes and sugar beet in the crop rotation.

Wirkungsdaten von Verfahren sind wichtig ist zwar kein chemisches Pflanzenschutzmittel, hat aber dennoch umfangreiche Studien über seinen Einfluss auf Regenwürmer, Springschwänze, Bodenmilben und Bodenbakterien während der elektrophysikalischen Sikkation durchgeführt. Es wurde kein Einfluss festgestellt. Auch die Landwirte benötigen zur Optimierung verlässliche allgemeine Daten über die Auswirkungen von Pflügen, Bodenbearbeitung, Kultivierung und anderen Methoden auf das Bodenleben auf Böden, die ihren eigenen zumindest ähnlich sind. Es ist bekannt, dass das Pflügen und die großflächige Bodenbewegung durch z. B. Kartoffelanbau und Zuckerrüben die Anzahl der Regenwürmer um bis zu 50 % reduzieren kann. Dennoch gibt es Landwirte, die dank jahrzehntelanger Bodenpflege auch bei Kartoffeln und Zuckerrüben in der Fruchtfolge problemlos 50 bis 200 Regenwürmer pro Quadratmeter haben.

Capturing the effects in each field as a goal

This shows that, just as with yield, we also need simple but highly meaningful measurement parameters in ecotoxicology and environmental assessment that provide every farmer with annual feedback. Digging in the field with a spade more often is certainly helpful and recommended (Video: New video on the spade test). In the future, however, even more objective methods for measuring biodiversity in the field, for example, will become increasingly important for monitoring success and payments for social added value. The DLG is also working on researching such methods (DE: BioMonitor4CAP: EU biodiversity monitoring project launched) and evaluating measures (DE: Strengthening species diversity and biodiversity in arable farming).

Conclusion – the land needs new (effective) measurements and also AI

Neue (effektive) Messungen und auch KI braucht das Land
Precision agriculture with AI

Only if precision agriculture also includes precision ecotoxicology can it take account of the high diversity of individual fields, local conditions and climate change, including biodiversity. Targeted action by farmers requires the best possible information about the effects of the methods in general and also about the specific effects on their own fields. Data alone will not help here, but artificial intelligence as an advisor for utilising shared experience and good simulation models will certainly provide a great deal of support, just as they do for weather forecasting. This can be an important contribution to less bureaucratic, less rule-based environmental protection and more reality-based, concrete action for the benefit of biodiversity. supports this with its own ecotox tests and the development of crop control methods without chemical agents and soil movement. Innovation for the benefit of agriculture and society as a whole needs more meaningful and highly efficient environmental information, including for local field conditions. After all, biodiversity is generated on the individual field just as much as yield.