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Pesticides in Farming: The Good, The Bad and the Future

May 14, 2024 - Emily Newton

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Agriculture is an essential industry, but one that must change. The use of pesticides in farming embodies the growing challenges around feeding the rising population while protecting the environment and ensuring good health.

Pesticides have garnered much scrutiny amid the organic movement and mounting environmental concerns. At the same time, they’re not entirely destructive. These additives serve an important role in modern farming, one that’s difficult to overlook as the population grows.

Benefits of Pesticides in Farming

Despite their largely negative public reception, pesticides benefit farming in several ways. These advantages fall mainly into two broad categories: ensuring food security and preventing foodborne diseases.

Food Security

All kinds of pesticides in farming — whether they kill insects, rodents, weeds or other threats — serve a common purpose in letting crops grow safely. Consequently, they enable higher crop yields. This effect is so profound that experts estimate global vegetable production would fall by 54% without pesticides.

This preservation will become increasingly important as the world’s population grows. In addition to requiring more food, a larger population typically means there’s less room to produce it, thanks to urban sprawl.

Amid this trend, farmers must produce more crops without necessarily taking up more space. The only way to do that is to ensure denser yields per harvest, which pesticides enable by minimizing losses.

Disease Prevention

The use of pesticides in farming also plays a key role in disease prevention. Foodborne diseases cause roughly 48 million illnesses annually in the U.S. alone. While many of these stem from production-related issues, many others come from on-farm contamination, which pesticides can address.

Many pesticides don’t directly target microbes and other contaminants in the crops themselves but prevent the pathogens that pests may spread from pests. Vector-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease are among the most significant of these threats. Pests like rodents and insects often carry the contaminants that lead to these infections, so by keeping them away from crops, pesticides minimize their health consequences.

Some pesticides have a more direct impact on preventing foodborne illnesses. Fungicides, for example, kill mold and mildew, which could present health concerns if they remain on food.

Downsides to Pesticides in Farming

While the benefits of pesticides in farming are hard to overlook, it’s important to recognize their negative consequences, too. The biggest concerns of these additives center around their impact on human health and the environment.

Health Risks

The most obvious downside to farming pesticides is that some pose health risks when consumed. Many chemicals poisonous to pests pose similar threats to humans in large enough quantities.

U.S. agricultural workers experience 10,000 to 20,000 cases of pesticide poisoning each year. That figure doesn’t include the number of people who accidentally ingest these chemicals in their food, either. Foodborne pesticide contamination may be less common than work-related cases, but they’re still prominent in developing nations with less strict pesticide regulations.

The specific health risks pesticides pose vary widely between the chemicals in question. Some cause skin irritations, others affect the central nervous system and others are possible carcinogens. While regulators have banned many of the most dangerous known pesticides, some experts warn that even permissible alternatives can cause health issues.

Environmental Risks

The other primary concern with pesticides in farming is that they can damage the surrounding environment. Even additives that aren’t dangerous to humans can harm wildlife if they seep into the area around farms.

Roughly 70,000 metric tons of potentially harmful pesticide byproducts leak into the world’s aquifers each year. Once there, these chemicals can poison plants and small animals. These toxins then work their way up the food chain, destabilizing ecosystems and contributing to declining wildlife populations.

Some pesticides can linger in the soil for years, amplifying these concerns. Even though many common additives today must meet standards for toxicity and biodegradability, they often break into more toxic and persistent byproducts once they leech into the environment. Consequently, these standards may make some pesticides appear more environmentally friendly than they really are.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Traditional Pesticides

Given these significant downsides, the agricultural industry must rethink its approach to pesticides in farming. While preventing pests and the diseases they carry is crucial, conventional methods are too dangerous to humans and the environment to justify. Thankfully, several safer alternatives exist.

Biosolarization

One promising alternative to conventional pesticides is a process called biosolarization. It begins with spreading agricultural waste like tomato skins, rice bran or manure over the soil. This biomass fosters the growth of microorganisms that produce natural biopesticides or otherwise impede the development of pests.

After incorporating this mass into the soil, farmers cover it with a tarp. Over the course of one to four weeks, this tarp traps heat from the sun, killing many pathogens, insects and other pests in the soil.

Biosolarization’s effects can last for years and take a quarter of the time to achieve these results than solarization — the soil-heating part of the process — alone. While it doesn’t protect against larger pests like rodents, it mitigates much of the need for chemical pesticides. It’s also more cost-effective and reduces waste, as farmers can use their agricultural byproducts as the added biomass.

Companion Planting

Polyculture, also called companion planting, is a much older but still effective way to fight pests without pesticides. The idea behind this strategy is to pair crops with other plants that naturally repel the kinds of pests that threaten the crops in question.

Some plants can repel certain pests through the oils they secrete, their scent or by presenting physical obstacles. Pairing these crops with others to complement each other’s unique pest and soil content needs can produce higher crop yields while reducing reliance on chemical pesticides.

Companion planting has economic benefits, too. Polyculture maximizes a farm’s use of available space, producing more sellable crops without needing additional planting ground. In many cases, companion plants also enrich the soil, ensuring a healthier, more productive crop.

Bioengineering

A less traditional but potentially more impactful alternative is to bioengineer pest-resistant crops. Biotechnology can strengthen crops against insects and diseases by modifying certain genes. While doing so is complex, it’s a one-time process. Once a modified seed exists, farms can breed it to produce additional seeds naturally.

Bioengineered crops may be able to naturally repel pests or withstand the contaminants they carry. By using these alternatives instead of traditional seeds, the world could reduce its reliance on pesticides in farming, even moving past it entirely.

It’s difficult to say how effective these genetically modified plants are compared to conventional pesticides on a large scale. Early signs are positive, though, and further research in this area could lead to a pesticide-free future.

Pesticides in Farming Are Important But Pose Risks

The use of pesticides in farming isn’t as black and white as it may seem initially. While these chemicals do have concerning impacts on people and the environment, farms can’t eliminate them without a replacement.

Several methods show promise as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional pesticides. As more farms embrace these strategies, they can secure strong crop yields and prevent diseases without endangering the public or the environment.

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.

Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She manages the sites publishing schedule, SEO optimization and content strategy. Emily enjoys writing and researching articles about how technology is changing every industry. When she isn't working, Emily enjoys playing video games or curling up with a good book.

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