The costs of human-induced evolution in an agricultural system

Abstract

Pesticides have underpinned significant improvements in global food security, albeit with associated environmental costs. Currently, the yield benefits of pesticides are threatened as overuse has led to wide-scale evolution of resistance. Despite this threat, there are no large-scale estimates of crop yield losses or economic costs due to resistance. Here, we combine national-scale density and resistance data for the weed Alopecurus myosuroides (black-grass) with crop yield maps and an economic model to estimate resistance impacts. We estimate that the annual cost of resistance in England is £0.4 billion in lost gross profit (2014 prices) and annual wheat yield loss due to resistance is 0.8 million tonnes. A total loss of herbicide control against black-grass would cost £1 billion and 3.4 million tonnes of lost wheat yield annually. Worldwide, there are 253 herbicide-resistant weeds, so the global impact of resistance could be enormous. Our research supports urgent national-scale planning to combat resistance and an incentive for increasing yields through food-production systems rather than herbicides.

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Fig. 1: Estimating yield penalties using black-grass density and winter wheat yield data.
Fig. 2: Field-scale costs and yield loss due to resistant black-grass.
Fig. 3: The relative contribution of herbicide costs, lost yield and operations costs to total costs in winter wheat crops.
Fig. 4: Annual impacts of herbicide-resistant black-grass at regional and national scales.

Data availability

Model data and input template are available at https://github.com/alexavarah/BGRI-ECOMOD. Data used to generate the yield penalty can be accessed at https://github.com/alexavarah/BGcosts. The field management dataset has been deposited in the University of Sheffield Online Research data archive (ORDA) and can be accessed at https://figshare.com/s/eb21f4d1862741d50ceb.

Code availability

Model code is available at https://github.com/alexavarah/BGRI-ECOMOD.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the farmers who allowed their fields to be surveyed and provided field management data. This work was funded by BBSRC (grant no. BB/L001489/1) and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (Cereals and Oilseeds).

Author information

Data were collected by H.L.H., D.C., L.C. and R.H. BGRI-ECOMOD was designed by A.V. and K.A. and built by K.A. A.V. did all analysis. S.R.C. and D.C. generated the yield penalty estimates and associated figures, and S.R.C. contributed to sensitivity analysis work. R.P.F. contributed the density map in Fig. 2. A.V. drafted the initial manuscript and H.L.H., D.C., S.R.C., P.N., D.Z.C., R.F. and K.N. contributed to refining it. Funding was acquired by R.P.F., D.Z.C., P.N. and K.N.

Correspondence to Alexa Varah.

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Competing interests

P.N. supervises a PhD student cofunded by Bayer (not part of this project). All other authors have no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Figs. 1–5, Tables 1–11 and references.

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Varah, A., Ahodo, K., Coutts, S.R. et al. The costs of human-induced evolution in an agricultural system. Nat Sustain 3, 63–71 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0450-8

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