Pros and Cons of Pesticide Use in Farming
As we began to better understand the true effects of things people had used for years but never knew actually harmed them and the environment around us, certain products came under heavy scrutiny. Mostly, these things such as lead paint and asbestos were banned completely and for good reason. However, the farming community has battled with something less conclusive when it comes to the use of pesticides on crops.
Of course, some pesticides that were used for years were empirically damaging to our health or the health of our planet and are no longer used. But the use of pesticides in farming is still utilized to this day and the debate rages on about whether we should be using them at all or completely abandoning the practice altogether.
Like most all nuanced debates, there are fair points on either side of the topic and the true answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Either way, it’s important to address the potential health hazards of using pesticides as well as ensuring we maintain the highest crop yields possible to guarantee there’s enough food to feed this country and the world at large.
So for today’s post, Wagner Ag will take a look at the debate for pesticide use in farming and give you some of the common pros and cons associated with using them and the farm equipment that dispenses chemicals onto crops that eventually end up on our dinner tables.
A Look at Pesticides
In order to form a true list of pros and cons, we must first understand what is meant by “pesticide” and what exactly they are and what they do. Essentially, a pesticide is a chemical created for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest. A pest just means a living organism that goes where they are unwanted and generally causes damage to crops, humans or other animals. These include insects, most notably, in the farming community, but could be mice, weeds, fungi and microorganisms.
Individual use of pesticides is pretty common like bug spray, rodent poisons or bath disinfectants, but we are of course discussing commercial pesticides that are applied to large crops on farms across the country and beyond.
Pesticides continue to play an important role in keeping crops healthy and free of pest infestations, which if left untreated, can destroy large amounts of produce, if not entire crops altogether. We need our farmers to produce things we eat and use, so they need a defense against pests. Let’s take a look and the most common pros for pesticide use in farming.
Bigger Food Supply
Spraying pesticides on crops or soil is an effective way of preventing or eliminating pests that either feed on the crops or create conditions in which the crops die or fail to yield in the amounts necessary to both turn a profit and fuel the country’s food requirements. Since the use of pesticides became mainstream, harvests have increased. One study found that crops which did not utilize pesticides saw crop yields dip by as much as 10 percent. Farms using pesticides prevent crop destruction so those farms have generated higher yields to the market and for consumers to put on the table. This includes insects and weeds. Pesticides are applied to the crops with chemical applicators, making it easy to protect your crops in a timely fashion.
Supporters of pesticide use say that chemicals are available easier than ever because you can purchase them in a local store or supermarket (for household pesticides primarily). Further restrictions on pesticides, they say, will only make them harder to find for farmers when they need them. As an additional side effect, manufacturers compete for sales and keep prices affordable.
While there is no denying that certain pesticides contain harmful chemicals to human health, advocates argue that for the most part pesticides contain nothing that is harmful to us and in general they are safe. There are environmentally-friendly pesticides on the market like herbicides, which contain less to no harmful chemicals at all. They work just like toxic pesticides, but use organic ingredients to make them safe.
Arguably the biggest pro for pesticide use is that it undeniably works. They kill or keep away unwanted pests that destroy crops, plants and trees. Scientists study natural bacteria in nature that kill pests like loopers and budworms and then extract those properties to make pesticides. They are proven to kill and prevent weeds, which destroy the environment crops need to thrive, not to mention the environmental damage weeds cause as well. Then there is the matter of public health. Pesticides prevent mosquitoes, which pass on deadly viruses such as West Nile, yellow fever and malaria.
As farmers protect and produce more successful crops, it allows the market to remain competitive and full of supply, in turn keeping costs down and food more affordable for consumers to purchase. Pesticide advocates claim that since farmers began using pesticides, the prices on food products have lowered as well. If there is little harvest due to crop loss from weeds and insects, then farmers have no choice but to charge more for what’s left. With the demand for food increasing every year as our planet’s population grows, it’s bad for us all to have both fewer crop yields and more expensive products.
Certainly, there are many strong pros to keep pesticide use in farming alive and well, however, a debate wouldn’t exist if there weren’t also legitimate reasons to question whether or not pesticide use is really the best for humans overall if it makes us and the planet sick. Let’s review some of the more common reasons against pesticides.
Because pesticides use chemicals that affect the health of other living organisms, they can also have adverse effects on human health as well. Sometimes we don’t truly know these negative health effects until many years later or if they are caused by prolonged exposure or from a single instance. Simple eye and skin irritation have been documented and more severe complications such as affecting the nervous system, imitating hormones and causing irregular reproductive issues and cancer. According to the World Health Organization, roughly three million workers in agriculture in the developing world experience severe poisoning from pesticides, and of those, 18,000 die.
Similar to the pests they’re intended for, and the humans who are negatively affected as a side effect, the environment is susceptible to damage from pesticide use. More than 98 percent of sprayed pesticides and 95 percent of herbicides end up somewhere else than their intended target area. Basically, non-targeted species, water, air and soil are affected by pesticides. This is known as a pesticide drift when the air carries the pesticides to other areas and contaminating them. Pesticides have been pointed to as a serious contributor to water pollution.
Clearly, if pesticides are ending up on things that they aren’t intended for, and they aren’t designed for human consumption, then inevitably they are consumed unintentionally. This causes a number of potential hazards for us. Some farmers are not careful enough with their pesticides and end up accidentally ingesting them, which can lead to any number of health issues, opponents say.
Decline in Pollinators
Helpful creatures like butterflies and bees can be negatively impacted by the use of pesticides as well. While it may be accidental, it doesn’t change the fact that both bees and butterflies are important to the environment because they carry pollen from place to place, ensuring healthy plants, fruits and vegetables all over the globe. In agricultural production, roughly 5-8 percent relies on animal pollination. Unfortunately, butterflies are nearly extinct in some parts of the world, the population of bees worldwide has greatly decreased. This is directly correlated to pesticides, but surely, opponents argue it’s an additional hazard at minimum.
The term bioaccumulation simply means the chemicals used in pesticides enter the body and stays there because the body doesn’t have the proper mechanisms to remove those substances. Experts against pesticide use argue bioaccumulation occurs in the body of plants because of numerous synthetic substances that can’t be broken down by the plant’s system, meaning it stays there permanently. Pesticides are then transferred to bees or other predatory animals to the plant, which works its way up the food chain until the entire line is polluted. This creates a systemic problem of contamination, which certainly will affect humans consuming food from nature.
Some opponents of pesticides simply argue that the use of them just isn’t effective or smart in the long run, at least in the amount we use them, because over time nature will combat them by building up immunities or other defense mechanisms — called genetic resistance. Eventually, in this scenario, pesticides don’t work at all, so all the other cons were for nothing but our own detriment.
Tying bioaccumulation and accidental ingestion into one extremely serious threat is overall food poisoning. As noroviruses spread from crop to crop, crop to insect and either to other animals, it eventually reaches the level of widespread contamination and human consumption. Water pollution then adds more to the growing problem to a point where the world’s food supply is mostly inedible. While this could take several decades or hundreds of years, and perhaps sounds like a doomsday theory, scientific experts in the field argue it could happen easier than we may think.
No matter where you stand on the issue of pesticides in farming, there’s no denying that they are here to stay for now and need to be safely and appropriately applied with the proper amount of care and farm equipment. Wager Ag is an expert in equipment and has the experience and knowledge to get you exactly what you need, whether it’s new or used farm equipment. Contact us or browse our affordable selection of farm equipment today!