By Hannah McGrath (Waitrose CTP Student)
In early February, I left Luton airport on a dreary Saturday morning for the sunshine in Volterra, Tuscany. I was off to attend a course on Agroecological Crop Protection (ACP), a concept I knew little about but aware that by the end of the week I would know more! Now I have the opportunity to pass some of that knowledge onto you…
What is Agroecological Crop Protection?
At its most broad, ACP could be described as a cropping system that has been designed with biodiversity and soil health as the two most important goals for the farmer. By improving the quality of these two components, crops should be able to tolerate the stresses placed upon them by the environment and so the farmer does not have to add any inputs to the system. For instance, by adding flowering plants within the field, biodiversity increases. These flowers might be able to provide food for natural enemies such as parasitoid wasps, which can control outbreaks of crop pests without requiring chemical sprays.
Why does Agroecological Crop Protection exist?
Agroecological Crop Protection was developed by predominately French agricultural researchers as a result of their many years of experience working and researching agricultural issues. Together this group saw that Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a buzzword, catch-all phrase used by many to describe their attempts to control crop pests in non-chemical ways. But, the reality they encountered was that the control pests and diseases often heavily relied upon chemical control, despite the methods being called IPM. This group also saw that the use of many of the chemicals that we use to control insect pests, weeds, and plant pathogens are being restricted by governments. Therefore, there is a need to develop cropping systems that can function without high inputs. Therefore, the researchers mainly from INRA and CIRAD, two French agricultural research institutes came together to propose ACP as an improvement on current agricultural practices.
Eventually, ACP has been written up in a book edited by J.P. Deguine, C. Gloanec, P. Laurent, A. Ratnadass and J.N. Aubertot, but the entire book contains work from 56 different authors around the globe. As many of the editors and authors of this book led the course in Volterra, I was literally from the people who wrote the book on ACP!
Figure 1. Agroecological Crop Protection Book.
I realise that you may be thinking that ACP and IPM sound like essentially the same thing, and in many ways they are. They both are agricultural concepts with an acronym developed to try and build more sustainable agricultural systems. For other people, the textbook definition doesn’t matter much to them, instead understanding the actions that take place to control pests, weeds and diseases out in the fields is what really matters.
Ultimately, Agroecological Crop Protection does attempt to further the relatively old concept of Integrated Pest Management and given that we are living in a regulatory environment where the use of chemicals is highly regulated, it is sensible to be working towards the goal of lowering chemical inputs.
Figure 2. The Tuscan landscape didn’t disappoint. Here was the view from an organic farm we visited to learn about how they were implementing Agroecological Crop Protection methods.
My personal reflections on the course
The course had a truly global attendance, with researchers from Costa Rica, Vietnam and Martinique making my journey from Rothamsted look rather tame. The opportunity to learn about the huge variety of cropping systems around the globe expanded the bubble I have formed around the way I see agriculture. Beneath all of case studies and anecdotes I heard, were farmers who cared deeply about their crop and the environment they worked in.
I also began to appreciate that agriculture and the many issues which farmers face shouldn’t be looked at in isolation. If we only think about pest management, soil health or crop nutrition on their own, we may be unintentionally making a problem worse or might miss a single solution for multiple problems. Whilst Agroecological Crop Protection may sound unachievably optimistic and futuristic, it at least gives a framework for further improvements in agriculture. It’s now up to me and the other attendees at the course to work out how that might look in the commercial agricultural settings we work in.