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Neonicotinoids in global agriculture: evidence for a new pesticide treadmill?

Lieneke Bakker, Farming Systems Ecology Group, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Wopke van der Werf, Centre for Crop Systems Analysis, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Pablo Tittonell, Agroecology, Environment and Systems Group, Instituto de Investigaciones Forestales y Agropecuarias de Bariloche (IFAB), INTA-CONICET, San Carlos de Bariloche, Río Negro, Argentina; Agroécologie et Intensification Durable (AïDA), Centre de coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), Université de Montpellier, Montpellier, France; Groningen Institute of Evolutionary Life Sciences, Groningen University, Groningen, The Netherlands
Kris A. G. Wyckhuys, Chrysalis Consulting, Hanoi, Vietnam; China Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, People's Republic of China; University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
Felix J. J. A. Bianchi, Farming Systems Ecology Group, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands


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Overreliance on synthetic insecticides in global agriculture is the outcome of a “pesticide treadmill,” in which insecticide-induced pest resistance development and the depletion of beneficial insect populations aggravate farmers’ pesticide dependencies. Examples of the pesticide treadmill have been witnessed repeatedly over the past seven decades, prompting the question whether the rapid uptake and usage patterns of neonicotinoid insecticides and their associated environmental impact are in accordance with this recurrent phenomenon. We hypothesize a conceptual framework in which treadmills are enforced by enabling or disabling drivers within four domains: pest management decisions at the farm level, characteristics of farming landscapes, science and technology, and societal demands. These drivers then tend to create a self-enforcing pesticide “lock-in.” We then analyze several post-1950s historical case studies with reference to this framework, e.g., those involving sprays of the highly hazardous DDT and methyl-parathion, in which the pesticide treadmill was initiated, sustained, and broken, and compare this with current patterns in neonicotinoid use. Historical case studies further illustrate how treadmills occur in three phases in which (i) a limited number of insecticides are routinely used, (ii) resistance development of pests results in the increased crop injury, prompting increased frequency of applications with a wider range of products, (iii) breaking out of the pesticide “lock-in” by policy change and adoption of alternative technologies that lowered chemical inputs and improved agro-ecosystem functioning. The analysis shows similarities as well as differences between neonicotinoid usage patterns and historic pesticide treadmills, and provides guidance on how to effectively avoid or dismantle pesticide treadmills in global agriculture.

Key words

agrochemical pollution; biodiversity loss; farmer decision making; global change; insecticide dependency; lock-in; neonicotinoids; pest management; pesticide treadmill; technological change

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087