Essential Role of Pesticides in Modern Agriculture

It would not be possible to maintain global food production without pesticides.

That should be obvious: why do you think farmers use pesticides? For fun? Farmers use them, and people invented them because pests have always been a massive problem for agriculture. They still are, even with pesticides, but the successes we have now are due to pesticide use, and if we got rid of all pesticides, the amount of food produced would not come close to what it is now.

An important point I need to make is that almost all farming uses pesticides, including organic. Yes, organic uses pesticides! Sometimes their pesticides are worse for the environment than the alternatives. Sometimes they are worse for farmers’ health and safety, like the toxic Rotenone that gives organic farmers Parkinson’s disease in the countries that haven’t banned it yet. And sometimes organic pesticides are 100% identical to conventional pesticides, only the organic farmers pay extra to get the “organic” label that allows them to charge higher prices for the same product.

So no label can tell you if something is pesticide-free, though, to date, no human has ever gotten sick from pesticides on their food. Farmers applying them, including organic farmers, can get sick, but the pesticides pose no risk to consumers of the food.

Part of IPM is teaching farmers alternatives to pesticides. This includes physical controls [ex: fences, walls, moats, nets], cultural controls [ex: when to plant, flooding a field, mulching, spacing crops apart, etc], and biological controls [ex: using predators and parasitoids of the pest to kill it]. But pesticides [chemical controls] are a part of IPM too, and always will be. IPM simply teaches farmers how to use them better, which means using them less while protecting more crops and making more profit!

Cost-Effective Pest Management

Here is a simplification of how IPM works. Imagine you are a farmer with a crop that has some pests in it. You calculate that the cost if you do not get rid of these pests, in terms of lost revenue, is X. You could spray pesticides and kill them all, but pesticides are not free and that would cost Y. If Y is greater than X, then spraying is bad for the farmer’s profits! If instead you only spray to keep the pests at a low but non-zero level, you will spend less money spraying than you would lose if you did not spray, and that is the best option of all! IPM work involves teaching farmers how to monitor their crops to see how big the pest problem is, how big an infestation has to be before management is necessary, and what is the best type of management to use.

Avoiding the Pesticide Treadmill

Too much pesticide use can make problems worse. For example, if any pests survive the spraying, they will likely be stronger and more resistant to what you sprayed and eventually will be completely resistant. This is called the “pesticide treadmill.” Another problem is that the biocontrol predators might also be affected by pesticides. These crops will be devastated by pests, but the pests that grow here will not develop pesticide resistance, so next year the pests will be as susceptible as they always were. Plus, natural predators can live in the refugia too and will recolonize the cropland after the spraying is done. You may lose some revenue to the refugia, but you will save a lot more money overall by getting off the pesticide treadmill.

GMOs Reducing Pesticide Use

New technologies are making pesticide use less important. One important tool to reduce pesticide use, which might surprise you if all you know about pesticides is what Big Organic has told you, is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One of the most popular GMOs involves putting an insecticide gene from bacteria into crops, which means they will kill any insect that eats them. This bacteria (Bt, or Bacillus thuringensis) is itself sprayed on crops in organic farming, and the insecticide can be extracted from the bacteria and sprayed on conventional crops, this bacteria itself is found pretty much everywhere, so don’t worry about safety: Everything you eat has this bacteria and/or toxin in it, even if you grow your food or harvest it from the forest, but the toxin is 100% harmless to mammals and only affects insects. However, spraying the toxin or the bacteria can affect all insects, such as the natural predators as well as good insects like honey bees and butterflies. The GMO means no spraying, and the only insects at risk are the herbivores eating the crop. You can even design the GMO so perfectly that only the part of the plant being eaten by the pest expresses the Bt gene and not the parts consumed by other insects or by people. The last estimates found that Bt crops use 40% less pesticides than non-Bt crops, organic or conventional. That is great for honey bees and other good insects. Future developments to create pest-resistant crops can further reduce the need for pesticides and, concurrently, the harm to the environment. Oh, and in case there is any doubt, GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption. The scientific consensus on that is clear and grows stronger every month.

It is absolutely, 100% impossible to maintain our current food output without any pesticides… but that doesn’t mean we can’t bring the amount used down. We can, we should, and we are doing just that! Thanks to integrated pest management and GMOs, global use of pesticides is decreasing! It won’t reach zero, as some pests just cannot be managed any other way and some outbreaks are just too big to be addressed in any other way, but it will fall, for the benefit of everyone… except the pests, of course!

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