The Pros & Cons Of Pesticides: Should We Be Pesticide Free?
Pesticides are in pretty much all of our food.
Some may be harmless, while others have been linked to various cancers and neurological disease.
And it’s becoming almost impossible to know which is which, adding another layer of confusion to our global food system.
Thankfully, there are options and ways in which we can stay better informed and more resistant to the barrage of conflicting information on the topic.
First, let’s talk a bit about chemicals.
Chemicals are confusing
Chemicals are impossible to avoid. They’re in our air, our water, and our food.
In 1983, reports of vast quantities of dihydrogen monoxide in municipal water pipes emerged, bringing the issue to public attention. This widespread chemical can be lethal if inhaled – thought to kill over a quarter of a million people a year – and it forms a colorless, odorless gas that contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect.
If enough is swallowed, it can even cause a dangerous condition known as hyponatremia.
Dihydrogen monoxide is often used as a chemical fire retardant and in nuclear reactors. It erodes our soils, is the major component of acid rain, and it’s even found in cancer tumors.
If this sounds alarming, that’s the point. Dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical formula for water. So even pure and clean water – which we depend on daily – can be dangerous under certain circumstances.
And chemical compounds like water are also essential to everything else in biological spheres, and make up the majority of our food.
This might seem like nit-picking, but it’s a critical piece of the context when discussing harmful chemicals, and in particular, the nuances of organic chemicals, especially when we’re trying to find out what else is going into our food.
The dihydrogen monoxide joke has been around for awhile, and while amusing, it’s also a brilliant demonstration of our vulnerability to false information and the way that simple manipulation of language can bring about panic.
Discussions around pesticides are a great example of the web of confusion around chemicals, toxins, and food production in general – and it’s important to understand some definitions in order to get involved.
What are pesticides?
Pesticides represent a wide range of protective treatments for crops and for people, perhaps unsurprisingly, to control pests. Pests come in many forms, and there are a ton of different kinds of pesticides to tackle them.
When it comes to our food, pests mainly come in the form of weeds and insects, and these are mainly controlled by herbicides and insecticides.
And these chemicals end up in refined food products like palm oil, in addition to fruits, vegetables, and other crops.
Herbicides are chemicals used to manipulate or control undesirable vegetation like weeds, and come in a variety of different forms.
These affect undesirable plants by acting on a number of mechanisms like their ability to photosynthesise or to produce fundamental amino acids; interrupting their biological processes and killing them.
Roundup is an example of a popular herbicide, and it’s also been the focus of some pretty scary revelations that we’ll come back to shortly.
These are chemical treatments that kill or prevent insects from interfering with our crops or our buildings. Usually, they work on the insect’s nervous system, or directly poison eggs.
Neonicotinoids are well-known examples of insecticides that work similarly to the naturally occurring nicotine found in many plant defenses.
They enter target plants and are consumed by the insect pest, acting on the pest’s nervous system to poison it. These are often wide-spectrum pesticides that kill more or less indiscriminately, meaning it’s not only pests that succumb to the poison and die.
One diverse form of effective pest control involves biological agents. These can be non-chemical controls like caterpillar-hunting wasps, which are a form of biocontrol.
There are also chemically-based biological solutions like pheromones, or other non-toxic agents, which fall under the category of biopesticides or biochemical control.
Other types of pesticides
There are numerous other forms of pesticides for various applications, just to name a few here:
- Bactericides: used against bacteria
- Fungicides: used against fungal pests
- Rodenticides: mostly used to kill rats and mice
- Avicides: used to kill birds
As you can see, humans are very good at developing ways to kill agricultural pests.
Unfortunately, there are both significant benefits and drawbacks to using any of these pesticides – and these make the issue particularly complicated.
Pros of pesticides
There are a few clear benefits to using pesticides, even if they may be a double-edged sword in most cases, which makes discussing the pros and cons of pesticides pretty confusing.
Let’s briefly go over the main advantages of using these chemicals:
Improved crop yields
Food production around the globe has increased dramatically, partially due to our increased use of pesticides. In areas where large-scale monoculture farming wasn’t possible before due to pests, pesticides have provided a way to overcome them.
Unfortunately, these improved yields have come at the cost of systemic chemical pollution of our soils, water, and air; and it’s quite wishful thinking to believe the golden era of pesticide use can last much longer.
Not only have yields increased, but the quality of crops and produce – at least aesthetically – has also gone up dramatically in recent decades. However, this “advantage” comes with the cost of ingesting pesticides in small amounts over the course of our lifetimes.
Adding to these is the need for more land with organic crops in many cases, and their lower yields also make produce too expensive for many people (for now).
In places that suffer from diseases like malaria, insecticides are often at the frontline when it comes to controlling the spread of their vectors like mosquitos.
Thousands of people perish from malaria everyday, so pesticides can play a significant role in reducing death and disease in these areas.
And while reducing human suffering is of vital importance, it’s not like insecticide use is restricted to these areas – so this benefit isn’t exactly relevant to much of the developed world.
Cons of pesticides
Pesticides have hit the headlines on several occasions, and stories about their dangers are often suppressed by powerful corporations with financial incentives, with their issues being covered up with misinformation campaigns from related industries.
Not all pesticides are terrible, but there are plenty of horror stories.
The major concern about pesticides in most cases is human health.
What’s toxic to animal life is often toxic to human life, too. But insecticides may be entirely harmless to humans directly and still harm us in other ways.
The rapid decline in insect populations has been attributed to many factors, but pesticides are a significant one. Insects help keep our ecosystems clean and stable and our food pollinated, and without them, we will most definitely be more prone to food scarcity and disease.
Even farmed insects, like the honeybees who make our honey, are seeing mass die-offs in response to pesticide usage.
Synthetic pesticides often remain in the environment for a long time, giving rise to so-called “forever chemicals”. Organic pesticides commonly break down faster than synthetic ones, avoiding this problem, but can in some cases be no less toxic than synthetic ones.
Pesticide manufacturing is, of course, terrible for the environment – but so is the storage and disposal of these hazardous chemicals.
Spills happen often as with any similar industry, and many places simply lack comprehensive pesticides policy anyways, so environmental disasters can easily go unreported.
And what about the application of these chemicals?
Pesticide drift is a big issue, and it’s similar to a common problem that comes with living in areas of rampant animal agriculture.
Pesticides are usually sprayed from crop dusting planes and tractors, and these chemicals disperse over a wide area as they’re carried into the skies and drift about. So, plant life, animals, and any communities nearby are heavily impacted over time by endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic pesticides constantly invading their space.
Anyways, let’s talk about some of the most high-profile cases of dangerous pesticides:
These are widely considered to contribute to insect decline on a global scale. They’re great against insects that feed on plants by sucking out sap, but they have far more widespread effects too.
Bee decline is well-reported, but as a generalist insecticide, neonicotinoids also wipe out a huge range of other pollinators and soil engineers like butterflies and earthworms.
They also leech from the soil into groundwater, rivers and lakes, carrying their toxicity into other environments (and into our bodies).
While these dangerous synthetic chemical insecticides are banned in the EU, they’re still widely used in the US and elsewhere across the world.
Neonicotinoids are a high-profile example, but it does seem that synthetic compounds are more persistent in the environment than “natural” ones on average.
So, are organic pesticides a solution? Not necessarily.
This is a naturally occurring, organic insecticide that’s dangerously toxic to fish, insects, humans, and other mammals. With that being said, it has advantages over neonicotinoids as it doesn’t seem to leach into groundwater.
Still, it’s been shown to increase Parkinson’s disease risks in those chronically exposed, and in places like the US, the EU, and the UK – it’s used mostly as a treatment against invasive fish species.
Rotenone is still used commonly in banana production as an organic pesticide in countries where it isn’t regulated, and even where it is, an alarming amount of banned pesticides are still widely used.
Monsanto’s popular weed killer Roundup, also known as glyphosate, has been implicated in numerous and widespread toxicity cases.
Its presence in human urine is on the rise, and while Monsanto’s claims that cancer links are false and that it’s even safe to drink, they aren’t so confident when put on the spot:
Hilarious and embarrassing behavior for sure, but despite its notoriety – this one is still in use worldwide, although restrictions are planned to kick in by the end of 2023.
Then, there’s the issue of resistance.
Pesticide resistance is a thing
As Jeff Goldblum famously stated in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way”.
And our use of pesticides has shown that in many cases, it’s true.
Pesticide resistance occurs when the use of pesticides kills off most organisms – leaving behind a minority with some mutation or another that provides resilience to the treatment.
This minority of organisms would have been kept in check by competition with other pests; but after those are removed a wide-open niche appears for them to fill.
Since they’re not harmed by our pesticides, they reproduce unhindered, until they become as common as the original community – filling our fields with pesticide-resistant problems. And this requires researchers to continually come up with new weapons against pests.
This process of selection is another one of the major reasons pesticides can be so dangerous and such a difficult issue to tackle.
By modifying crops to become more resistant to pests, we can release our overbearing grip on the local environment in which they’re grown and farm less intensively.
Still, the poster children for successful GMOs are starting to lose their resistance as life finds a way to bypass restrictions once again.
Ultimately, we’re a long way from dropping our reliance on pesticides. And while switching to organic might be a short-term improvement, it brings its own complications. We have very limited power over the safety of our food – and this can really only be improved by becoming more informed about science and misinformation in our modern world.
Possible solutions to pesticides
So, the danger with pesticides can come from all angles – but there are still relatively safer options available.
On the whole, organic pesticides are better than synthetic ones.
They break down faster, often have lower toxicity, and when well regulated can provide a much healthier alternative. But, there are sustainable agricultural practices that avoid the complexities of the pesticide minefield entirely.
Pesticide-free agriculture research aims to make use of physical and biological control options to avoid the use of chemical pesticides entirely, and it’s certainly possible with crops like hemp which don’t require huge quantities to thrive.
Leaning on cutting-edge farming techniques alongside fundamental ecological principles, it may be possible to bring in physical solutions to a problem that has traditionally been addressed chemically.
With biocontrol, organisms are introduced rather than killed off. This increases biodiversity as a way of reducing pests, without all of the potential widespread, adverse effects.
By breeding plants in better alignment with their ecology, they become more resilient to attack by recruiting and selecting beneficial microbes in the soil – microbes that can coexist freely when pesticides are removed.
All of this could be intricately implemented in countries where regulations and technology are effective and up to date. But there are low-tech and widely-implementable solutions, too.
Your vigilance matters
With corporations the likes of Monsanto and DuPont illegally polluting our water and warping our media, it’s increasingly difficult to know whom to trust.
Not only are supply chains intentionally blurry and hard to follow, but our lack of clear terminology on these topics also leads to satirical demonstrations of ignorance like the dihydrogen monoxide prank.
Organic isn’t necessarily better, but arguments on both sides are contaminated with propaganda, ignorance, and buzzwords – as displayed by officials who considered banning dihydrogen monoxide.
The only thing we can realistically do to combat this is to become more informed.
Not all chemicals are bad, and not everything that’s organic is good. Like most topics surrounding sustainability – there’s no easy answer to this problem, and those who tell you there is are either mistaken or have bad intentions.
One thing we can all be more mindful of, however, is excess.
Solving food waste and inefficient supply chains would reduce the land needed to grow crops, and allow for a bit of healthy competition with our ecological housemates.
Overconsumption and the unchecked capitalist approach to farming are at the heart of the issue, and as long as we prioritize consumption and growth over all else, the incentives to relentlessly pollute and drain our soils with pesticides will remain.
Organic pesticides might be better than current options for the environment on the whole, but they’re still not to be entirely trusted.
More research and better regulation need to go into our food chains to help protect our health and that of the environment we’re occupying.
Pesticide-free agriculture could be an incredible solution to a growing issue, but it’s an idea that will face a steep climb and lots of opposition as it enters the mainstream.