Organic farming programme halves use of pesticides by farmers

Moves to transition farms in an Indian state to organic practices have reduced pesticide use among farmers, an evaluation of the programme has shown.

Reducing pesticide use is a key aim of the Andhra Pradesh Community-managed Natural Farming (APCNF) programme in south India. The programme aims to transition all 6 million farmers to natural farming practices by the end of the decade, limiting environmental and human harm.

First-of-its-kind study

CPSP researchers supported the design and delivery of the evaluation study, which sought to assess the impact of the APCNF programme.

The study was led by the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security at the University of Edinburgh and was carried out in collaboration with the Public Health Foundation of India, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and Centre for Chronic Disease Control, India.

This is the first study to explore the impact of a large-scale government organic agriculture programme on pesticide use and availability.

Promising findings

The research team conducted interviews with more than 850 farmers and almost 40 pesticide retailers. They found that, despite the major government drive towards organic agriculture, about half of organic farmers still used pesticides and there had been no impact on pesticide sales at local retailers.

The study included almost 150 farmers who had been practising organic farming for an average of two years. These farmers were less likely to use pesticides than conventional farmers, although pesticides continue to be used.

Farmers who met government agricultural extension workers more frequently were less likely to use pesticides, underscoring the importance of training.

In the absence of training, when there is a pest outbreak, farmers who are new to organic practices may quickly default to the familiar use of pesticides, which are readily available from retailers.

Dr Lindsay Jaacks from the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, said:

“Our findings are promising. APCNF farmers are less likely to use pesticides after about two years. We did not expect pesticides to drop to zero within just a couple years of the programme – a transition from input-heavy convention farming to organic does not happen overnight.”

CPSP Director Professor Michael Eddleston, who helped develop the project, said:

“While these findings are encouraging, demand for pesticides remains high. Very few retailers reported a decrease in pesticide sales, suggesting that pesticides are still being bought and stored in rural communities. Many of these pesticides are lethal to humans, posing a risk to human health. Further research is therefore required to understand the health benefits of the programme.”

Understanding health effects

While promising, the findings suggest that a multifaceted approach is needed to truly eliminate the use of these harmful chemicals.

Further research is now underway to explore the health benefits of transitioning to organic among farmers in the state.

The BLOOM study (co-Benefits of Largescale Organic farming On huMan health) is an ongoing community-based, cluster randomised controlled evaluation of the APCNF programme. The study is being led by the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, with support from CPSP, and aims to deepen understanding of the health effects of reducing pesticide exposure.

The study is published in Lancet Planetary Health and was supported by the Scottish Funding Council and UK Research and Innovation.