rethink sustainability

    Pest practice: how regenerative farming is unleashing the power of the ladybird

    In 1478 the farmers of Berne, Switzerland, had had enough. A plague of beetles was wreaking havoc in their crops. Finally, after all attempts to remove the beetles had failed, a complaint was raised to the bishop of Lausanne. The bishop put the beetles on trial and, after finding them guilty, sentenced them to excommunication.

    The trial was not unusual. During the Middle Ages insects and other pests were routinely tried by ecclesiastical courts. A plague of crop-destroying beetles could be a matter of life and death, so it may be no wonder that desperate citizens sought help from higher powers.

    Perhaps the farmers of Berne could have looked closer to home for help, however. Today, regenerative farming techniques have shown that one of the best defences against insects is other insects. A single ladybird, for instance, can consume 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. They aren’t fussy eaters and will consume many of the most damaging pests in agriculture.

    Ladybirds are, in effect, a natural pesticide. Yet, like most insect species, native ladybird populations are under threat,1 often they are unintended casualties in our escalating war on pests.

    Ladybirds are, in effect, a natural pesticide. Yet, like most insect species, native ladybird populations are under threat


    The age of agro-chemicals

    History is full of inventive approaches to pest control. As long ago as 2,500 BCE, the Sumerians were using sulphur to kill off insects. In 19th century UK, the Victorians had a no-nonsense approach to protecting their apple trees against aphids and birds – they smeared the trees with arsenic. “Wash the apples well afterwards,” was the advice.

    More recently we have sought less toxic alternatives. Since the 1950s, modern monoculture farming techniques have relied on carefully formulated agro-chemicals – fertilisers, insecticides, bactericides, fungicides and herbicides. In a roundabout way these chemicals even dictate what we eat – for example, most soya beans and corn now come from plants genetically engineered to resist weed killer2.

    These innovations have led to extraordinary increases in crop production. Often dubbed the ‘Green Revolution’, between 1960 and the start of the new millennium cereal yields more than doubled despite the amount of land given over to growing them staying relatively stable.3 According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, each year we now spray more than a third of a kilogram of pesticides for every person on Earth.4


    Is pest control out of control?

    Pests, it turns out, don’t take this chemical onslaught lying down. Over time, they evolve to tolerate particular products. In turn, farmers resort to ever more toxic formulations that can have wider negative environmental impacts. Neocotinoids, for instance (a branch of insecticide largely banned in the UK and EU but still widely used elsewhere), are up to 10,000 times more deadly to bees than earlier insecticides.5 In effect, we are engaged in a game of whack-a-mole on a planetary scale, only the moles and the hammers are getting bigger.

    For the environment, this escalating battle can have dire consequences. In Germany, researchers found that the total number of flying insects such as ladybirds and wasps fell by around 80% between 1990 and 2017– unintended exposure to pesticides is thought to be largely to blame7. (For birds, this fall in insect numbers has been calamitous – across Europe, the bird population has fallen by more than 500 million over the last 40 years.8)

    Pesticides’ indiscriminate impact is felt below ground, too, where years of accumulated spraying make life miserable for earthworms and other invertebrates


    Pesticides also linger in the environment. In the Canadian province of New Brunswick, DDT, the now-banned grandfather of modern insecticides, was found in high concentrations in some lakes fifty years after it had last been sprayed onto neighbouring forests. Despite the passage of half a century, researchers believed that the DDT was still causing algal blooms and reducing fish stocks.9

    Pesticides’ indiscriminate impact is felt below ground, too, where years of accumulated spraying make life miserable for earthworms and other invertebrates. Earthworms are essential for soil health, but fungicides and insecticides can stunt their growth and hamper their ability to reproduce.10

    Read also: Soil: food’s forgotten superhero


    Restoring the natural balance

    In the early 2000s, Alvarro Nietro, a vegetable farmer in Central Mexico, stumbled upon a natural solution. Nietro had been forced by food production regulations to set traps for mice in his field. Nietro discovered that the mice being killed weren’t interested in his crops: they just wanted the water which he had diverted to irrigate the crops. He decided instead to make small ponds outside the fields: “If they want water, why not give them water?” he reasoned. The mice stopped coming into the fields and the traps lay empty.

    It was a simple solution, but, according to Nietro, “it changed everything.” Soon, owls and eagles came to feed on the mice. Inspired by the resurgence in life, Nietro planted 10,000 native trees in areas which weren’t being actively farmed. These ‘wild, bio-corridors’ became host to bats, squirrels, deer and even a cougar.

    The need for pesticides was almost entirely eliminated since the wildlife in the bio-corridors controlled pests naturally, saving money and labour. “Once you help nature restore the balance, you restore everything, even your economy,” Nietro says. “I tell all the growers: do it for the love, or do it for money, but do it.”11

    The economic value of nature’s pesticides

    In the UK, regenerative farmer Ian Tolhurst takes a similar approach. Tolhurst has never sprayed his crops with pesticide, yet his farm’s yield matches that of conventional farming techniques. On farmland that was once so degraded it was considered unsuitable for farming, Tolhurst leaves wildflower strips and hedgerow borders to encourage the insect predators that serve in place of pesticides. When aphids are at their most abundant, Tolhurst says, “you’ll find a ladybird on every leaf.”12

    In China, research has put a value on this essential ecosystem service, estimating that every single ladybird is worth nearly USD 0.01 to cotton farmers in the country, and that doubling the density of ladybirds across all cotton farms would increase grower’s profits by USD 300 million.13

    Reliance on nature’s pesticides was once confined to farming’s fringes – now the technique is going mainstream

    Scaling-up sustainability

    Reliance on nature’s pesticides was once confined to farming’s fringes – now the technique is going mainstream. A number of major producers, including international food giant Nestlé, have committed to the ‘nature-first’ approach to food production, promising to source ingredients from regenerative farms that promote natural alternatives to agro-chemicals. Meanwhile across the EU, farms are likely to move to more regenerative techniques following a bloc-wide commitment to cut chemical pesticide use by 50% by 2030.14 As part of the EU Green Deal, national agricultural subsidies must be redirected to encourage nature-positive farming practices.

    Much of this may be achievable simply by cutting back. An EU commission report found that pesticide use could be reduced by 40% with little impact on productivity, while techniques associated with regenerative farming, such as planting wildflower strips and moving from monocultures to diverse crop planting, could improve natural pest control services and boost yields.15

    …robots may soon help to scale up sustainability by conducting manual weeding and seed-sowing in labour-intensive intercropped farms…


    Technology will help this effort. According to research presented at the European Conference on Precision Agriculture16, robots may soon help to scale up sustainability by conducting manual weeding and seed-sowing in labour-intensive intercropped farms, where strips of different crops are planted alongside one another to increase yields.

    Other precision technologies will be deployed to optimise pesticide use – for instance, California-based Trimble deploys sensors to ensure herbicides are sprayed only on weeds rather than being spread indiscriminately. Meanwhile drones already offer assistance in a number of ways, including providing precise imaging of problem areas so that pest outbreaks can be identified early and pesticide use can be optimised, or even providing transport for natural pest predators. In Queensland, Australia, for example, commercial firms use drones to distribute predatory mites to strawberry crops.17


    Investing in biodiversity – the climate case

    A warming climate is likely to increase the threat from pests, as their geographical range expands into previously cold regions and they survive the winter in greater numbers.18 Against this growing threat, there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Chemical pesticides, increasingly applied using precision technologies that reduce their indiscriminate spread, will continue to play an important role. Despite conventional expectations that the global pesticide market is expected to reach a value of USD 71 billion by 202519 there is strong evidence that pesticide use has plateaued and may well be on the decline from as early as 202420.

    At the same time, ever more stringent regulations, and a rise in consumer awareness of the impact of agricultural chemicals, will incentivise farmers and food producers to find ways to reduce pesticide use and work in harmony with nature. Here, investors will find new opportunities to invest in nature itself.

    Ladybirds and their pest-munching peers are more than just potential pesticides – they are vital actors in infinitely complex networks that ensure the health of ecosystems


    Increasingly, nature-positive farmland will command a premium over traditional industrial farmland, both for the ‘regenerative’ commodities produced and for its role in performing vital ecosystems services such as sequestering carbon and fostering a diverse range of plants, insects, birds and mammals. To encourage this, today’s carbon markets could soon be mirrored by a ‘biodiversity market’, where biodiversity credits act as an economic instrument to finance nature restoration projects.21

    When it comes to tackling the climate challenge, biodiversity matters. Ladybirds and their pest-munching peers are more than just potential pesticides – they are vital actors in infinitely complex networks that ensure the health of ecosystems and their ability to absorb carbon.22 For investors, real nature-based assets – physical ecologies that can form regenerative landscapes – will offer a route to long-term returns whilst encouraging and accelerating nature restoration on a vast scale.

    According to biologist Enric Sala, “investing in biodiversity…is essential for the future of humanity. Natural ecosystems are both our savings accounts and our life insurance policies. We need to ensure that our natural capital portfolio is well-diversified.”23


    Indirect Effect of Pesticides on Insects and Other Arthropods - PMC (; An assessment of acute insecticide toxicity loading (AITL) of chemical pesticides used on agricultural land in the United States | PLOS ONE
    Yields vs. Land Use: How the Green Revolution enabled us to feed a growing population - Our World in Data
    Pesticides use, pesticides trade and pesticides indicators (
    European Union Bans Neonicotinoid Insecticide to Protect Bees--Here's Why (
    More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas | PLOS ONE
    Direct pesticide exposure of insects in nature conservation areas in Germany | Scientific Reports
    Over half a billion birds lost due to pesticides and fertilizers | World Economic Forum (
    Decades After DDT Was Banned, It Still Impacts Canadian Lakes | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine
    10 Pesticides make the life of earthworms miserable | ScienceDaily; World of earthworms with pesticides and insecticides - PMC (
    12 Regenesis, George Monbiot
    13 Uncovering the economic value of natural enemies and true costs of chemical insecticides to cotton farmers in China - IOPscience
    14 Green Deal: Halving pesticide use by 2030 | EIP-AGRI (
    15 European Commission JRC Science for Policy Report: Scientific evidence showing the impacts of nature restoration actions on food productivity
    16 14th European Conference on Precision Agriculture | Bologna (
    17 Drones: Innovative Technology for Use in Precision Pest Management | Journal of Economic Entomology | Oxford Academic (
    18 The Impact of Climate Change on Agricultural Insect Pests - PMC (
    19 Environmental and Health Impacts of Pesticides and Fertilizers and Ways of Minimizing Them | UNEP - UN Environment Programme
    20 Lombard Odier source
    21 How biodiversity credits can deliver benefits for nature | World Economic Forum (
    22 Biodiversity - our strongest natural defense against climate change | United Nations
    23 The Nature of Nature

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