These days, even people not directly involved in the agriculture sector understand that chemicals such as pesticides are important. Pesticides maximize the amount of food produced for human consumption, prevent the spread of insect-borne disease, and help preserve the earth by allowing farmers to gain a greater yield from a smaller section of farmland, keeping them from converting other neighboring areas into additional farmland.
However, herbicides are just as important. By killing select plants without harming the main crop of a given area, herbicides eliminate any competition that crop may have for resources. As with pesticides, this means more food for the people of the world, and no need to displace nearby animals by turning their habitats into farms.
Read on for some exploration of the history of herbicides, and the benefits they offer not only to those in the agricultural industry, but society as a whole.
Agriculture is one of the oldest industries in the history of humankind. Prior to its development, the hunter-gatherer model was the primary manner in which societies were organized. But when agriculture was developed, tribes could settle down, build greater structures, and create real cultures of their own.
Because agriculture played such a foundational role in human society, it’s something of a surprise to learn that herbicides are essentially a 20th-century invention. The first breakthroughs in this field were in fact the byproducts of chemical experiments during World War II. Researchers ended up creating 2, 4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2, 4-D), a chemical that could kill unwanted weeds without doing any damage to the major crops.
In 1946, 2, 4-D first hit the market. Within an incredibly short period of time, it had a major positive effect on the world, dramatically increasing the output of farmers. Since then, other chemicals and processes have been invented and discovered, allowing farmers to grow the crops they wish to and eliminate the plants that rob them of their resources.
Why Herbicides Are Important
If you work in agriculture, it’s probably easy to imagine the long-term benefits of using herbicides. How successful you are hinges on how much food you can produce. If your land is full of weeds and other plants that crowd out your crops and deplete their share of resources, you need to be able to handle this problem effectively and affordably. Herbicides make this easy, boosting your production (and profit) without requiring you to make great investments of money, effort, time, or additional lands.
If you merely consume the food produced by farms, however, you also benefit from the use of herbicides. First of all, while we may have limited control over the immediate effects of the climate or weather, we can use innovations like these to limit the harm that inclement events, such as a drought, might do to us. Before herbicides, droughts were absolute catastrophes for many reasons; a key reason, though, was that they severely reduced the amount of food a farm could produce.
However, we should not downplay the adverse effect that a drought can have, even today. That said, thanks to herbicides, that effect is not as devastating as it once was. In the past, weeds would use up much of the limited water available to crops during a drought, resulting in massive food shortages. However, when weeds can be controlled, even during times of limited rainfall, many crops can still grow reliably, as they do not need to compete for resources.
From an economic perspective, herbicides are also good for society as a whole. According to researchers, their use earns farmers in the United States an additional $16 billion per year. When herbicides were put to use in Argentina, the country’s economy benefited from a $30 billion boost. Even if you’re not a farmer, this is good news: that money is funneled back into the country’s economy, and because we live in an increasingly globalized world, your country and its economy will benefit as well.
Agriculture is an interesting line of work. On the one hand, it’s almost as old as human civilization. On the other hand, it keeps changing due to fairly recent innovations such as herbicides. Luckily, those changes have been positive, as we are better able and equipped to feed the world. Keeping people fed has always been the goal of agriculture, and now, we can think beyond the limits of our small tribe.