First, a general introduction: pesticides are chemical substances used to repel or kill pests. Most people think of them as insecticides, but pesticides also target non-insect animals, weeds, fungi, bacteria, algae, and viruses. While the focus of this post is on their use in agriculture, pesticides actually have a wide variety of applications, ranging from: killing vector-borne diseases in public drinking-water containers to household cleaning supplies.
Farmers use pesticides to keep animals, weeds, and diseases from endangering their crops. Pesticides are common in modern agriculture because most agroecosystems have been developed as monocultures, which are easy targets for pests. Synthetic repellants aren’t cheap, though, some farmers concentrate their use on highest-valued like grains, rather than most-harvested crops – fruits and vegetables. Hence, those wary of pesticides emphasize washing fruits and vegetables, not bread.
However, it is important to recognize that pesticides aren’t the only means of pest control. There are a number of natural, as well as, physical farming techniques that are just as, if not more, effective at protecting crops. Fallowing, rotating crops, weeding by hand, erecting physical barriers, strategically growing trap or companion plants, and permitting beneficial predators, are all examples of pest-deterring practices that are more ecologically beneficial and cost-efficient than pesticides.
So, is money the primary concern in the pesticide debate? Absolutely not. The indirect costs to humanity and environment are the main problems: food insecurity, human health detriment, water contamination, air pollution, and non-target species endangerment are some of the most pressing issues.
- Food insecurity: Pesticides are meant to help farmers yield larger harvests by removing threats to crops. However, many pests, namely insects, are adept at developing chemical resistance. The ironic consequence is that farmers, having destroyed or neglected organic pest control methods in favor of pesticides, suffer even larger infestations of pests that are no longer deterred by the chemicals coating on the crops.
- Human health: External contact with pesticides can burn the skin and eyes, while ingestion – airborne or foodborne – can cause carcinogenic, neurological, reproductive, and immune-system damage. Pesticides can be highly poisonous, causing an estimated 220,000 human deaths per year. Additionally, disease vectors, such as malaria-ridden mosquitoes, are made even bigger threats to human health because they can develop chemical resistance.
- Water contamination: Whether introduced via run-off, leaching, spillage, or otherwise, pesticides can dangerously elevate toxicity levels in bodies of water. Toxicity can render groundwater undrinkable and make aquatic ecosystems uninhabitable to certain species.
- Air pollution: When pesticides are sprayed onto a patch of land, some chemicals linger in the air and can be spread miles away by wind currents. This brings non-target animals and plants as well as humans into contact with toxic materials. Moreover, pesticide chemical reactions with compounds present in air account for 6% of tropospheric ozone, better known as smog, and contribute to acid rain.
I should mention that all is not as bad as I’ve made it seem. The EPA and similar agencies around the world undertake rigorous testing of pesticides and only permit them with strict usage guidelines. Moreover, consuming food that’s grown with pesticides is unlikely to kill you. Most deaths from poisoning are associated with substance mismanagement in underdeveloped countries. As one EPA brochure puts it:
“Because most crops are treated with pesticides at least some of the time, foods you buy at the grocery store may contain small traces of pesticide residues. Pesticide levels tend to decline over time because the residues break down and because crops are usually washed and processed before reaching the marketplace. So, while we all consume small amounts of pesticides regularly, levels in our food generally are well below legal limits by the time the food reaches the grocery shelves.”
Here are my points: pesticides are quite dangerous, and their use doesn’t seem justified when one considers the abundance of alternative pest control mechanisms and methods. It is worth supporting those growers who abstain from using synthetic pest control substances. Nevertheless, there is significant regulation in place to prevent mass diffusion of chemicals; so consuming food that isn’t certified organic is not going to seriously endanger your health.
Just something to consider,
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