March 19, 2012
Insecticides, Biocides, Algicides, Herbicides, Rodenticides–what do all of these have in common? These terms are all part of a larger group of 34,000 pesticides, defined as “a substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest.” Pesticide use in both 2006 and 2007 amounted to an estimated 5.2 billion pounds worldwide, with 1.1 billion in the United States alone. However, the use of pesticides is quite controversial and is debated from all ends of the spectrum, including health advocates, environmentalists, politicians, consumers, and the agricultural industry. It comes as no surprise that most of these pesticides are toxic–after all, that is the purpose for which they were created. The following article outlines the pros and cons to pesticide use in hopes of determining whether the risk of using pesticides is worth the benefit.
The benefits of pesticide use are extensive and provide a strong basis for pesticide advocates. First, pesticides provide the United States with huge economic profit–the industry made $12.5 billion dollars in 2007, exporting 40% of domestically created pesticides (US EPA). In addition, pesticides have saved millions of lives, eradicating many disease-carrying insects. Pesticides have also helped the forestry ecosystems by helping trees to resist disease-carrying insects like the gypsy moth. However, the largest benefit of pesticides has to do with increased agricultural yield. Worldwide, “90% of the damage sustained by crops is caused by less than 100 species of weeds, insects, fungi and microbes – all considered pests” (Food Safety Factoidz). With the use of pesticides, crop productivity increases by 20 – 50%, thereby making it possible for consumers to choose from an “abundant supply of fresh, high-quality foods that are affordable and accessible year-round” (Crop Life America). Millions of products rely on agricultural products, and without the proper use of protection, a domino-effect of damage and deficiency could lead to serious losses.
Pesticide use also has its cons that affect crops, pests, and humans all around the world. For one, although pesticides are effective in killing or repelling pests, that effect lasts very shortly as many pest species develop resistance to pesticides rapidly, and the number of resistant species has increased since pesticides were first used in the 1950s. Pesticides are also nonspecific, meaning they affect pests and non-pests wherever they are spread. Also, pesticides are mostly sprayed aerially over a field of crops and only 5% of the pesticides reach their target while the other 95% spreads out to the environment: “the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat” (“Pros and Cons,” Factoidz). Because of the increased use in pesticides, ground water sources have been contaminated, and have also caused farmers to abandon the use of crop rotations which, in turn, has increased pesticide dependence.Lastly, pesticides have caused the acute poisoning and death of millions of people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Clearly, the use of pesticides have posed a risk on humans and the environment. They have prevented the worldwide spread of disease which, many proponents argue, have saved many lives. The mass production and mass use of pesticides, however, has also threatened the environment with contamination and has threatened human, plant, and animal health through poisoning. The risk has not gone unnoticed and people are aware now that pesticide use must be reduced to minimize risk. One way proposed to reduce pesticide use is through integrated pest management (IPM) which involves mainly cultural, biological, and chemical methods and techniques collectively in farming to control pests. Exposure to pesticides must also be reduced and there are several “how-to methods” people can follow at home to minimize exposure after purchasing organic produce. Pesticides have largely remained a risk but the efforts to reduce their use and better management should be considered in order to minimize their risk to the environment.
Sergio Avelar and Caroline Smith are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.