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The Pros and Cons of Using Pesticides for Food Production

The controversial use of pesticides, including the pro and cons.

A pest is any species that competes with our food supply, invades our homes, spread disease or tampers with our ecosystems. Worldwide, 90% of the damage sustained by crops is caused by less than 100 species of weeds, insects, fungi and microbes – all considered pests. To eradicate these pests, and obtain and maintain food security, there are several schools of thought regarding pest management.

One of those schools, the use of modern synthetic pesticides, is extremely controversial with both widely discussed advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of chemical pesticides include: they save lives, they increase the food supply, they help make farming profitable and they are “safe” if used properly. The disadvantages include: the promotion of genetic resistance they cause, the killing of natural pest enemies, the creation of new pest species, the pollution they contribute to the environment and the harm they can cause to wildlife and people alike.

Proponents of synthetic pesticides put forth that they save lives. Since 1945, DDT and other such insecticides have prevented the deaths of at least seven million people. Some put that number at a much higher 500 million. This 500 million includes those saved from insect borne diseases such as malaria, bubonic plague and typhus. There are great articles in theFall 2002 issue of 21st Century Science & Technology featuring DDT, with articles by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, “Mosquitoes, DDT, and Human Health,” and Dr. Donald Roberts, "To Control Maralia We Need DDT" that put forth the values of pesticide use in order to sustain the earth’s increasing demand for food and the need to eliminate such diseases as malaria from all of the world rather than just select regions.

Additionally, proponents of pesticide use believe that synthetic pesticides increase the world food supply. Approximately 55% of the world’s food supply is currently lost to pests. Without pesticides, the losses would be too numerous for the human population to absorb.

Those advocating the use of pesticides point out that herbicides and insecticides make farming more profitable. For every dollar spent on a pesticide, pesticide companies estimate that $4 is made. Likewise, they work fast, killing most pests immediately, and have a long shelf life. When used properly and according to directions pesticides pose very little risk to farm workers or consumers: again, if they are used properly. This is even the position of the National Council on Health and Science. They even argue that the newer pesticides are often derived from botanicals and are safer and less damaging to the environment and pose virtually no risk at all.

The opponents, on the other hand, believe that pesticides are detrimental to people and the environment and should never be used at all. They believe that since insects breed rapidly, using pesticides only serves to create resistant hybrid species that come back even greater and stronger and worse they ever were to begin with. They believe that pesticides kill natural predators and parasites that help control pest populations, such as spiders, and that they kill pollinators, such as bees.

Opponents note that pesticides are not, by their nature, self-containing. They spread. According to the USDA only 1-2% of insecticides sprayed reach the pests for which they are intended and less than 5% of herbicides reach the weeds for which they are intended. The fallout of this means that upwards of 95% of the pesticide sprayed is left in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each year about 2.6 million tons of pesticides are used in the United States. This use is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture, but the regulation itself is controversial and the jury is still out on whether or not the risks outweigh the benefits of use here in the United States. There are indeed arguments to both ends…it is all a matter of perspective and objective which way one believes.

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Comments (2)
Debra Hardy

When I became a certified master gardener our training included synthetic and organic pesticides. 75% of pests will be eradicated using a synthetic, but the remaining 25% and all their successive generations will be immune to that particular pesticide forever. Insects do not develop immunity to natural pest control methods, so I support more use of Integrated Pest Control Management. Use the natural pest control methods first.

Debra Hardy

When I became a certified master gardener our training included synthetic and organic pesticides. 75% of pests will be eradicated using a synthetic, but the remaining 25% and all their successive generations will be immune to that particular pesticide forever. Insects do not develop immunity to natural pest control methods, so I support more use of Integrated Pest Control Management. Use the natural pest control methods first.

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