Agriculture is among the most important innovations in the history of humankind, right up there with the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel. Prior to its development, our ancestors lived nomadic or semi-nomadic lives, hunting prey, gathering food, and moving on to a new location before long. The emergence of agriculture in different parts of the world around 12,000 years ago was nothing short of a revolution. Domesticating plants allowed us to form stable communities and build upon them—rather than focusing strictly on survival, we could also develop art, culture, and new technologies. No longer needing to move from one place to another in order to stay alive, we could put down roots and build civilizations.
As history marches on, agriculture has maintained its significance, even thousands of years later. That said, it isn’t exactly as it used to be; numerous advances have made agricultural processes even more effective and efficient than ever before. One such advance is pesticides. Early societies were forced to accept the fact that there were other organisms that were drawn to the food they planted. This limited how much of their harvest they could distribute amongst themselves, and made it necessary to employ more people in the work of farming. With the introduction of pesticides, though, this was no longer a problem, as crops could finally be protected from such organisms.
In the world of agriculture, pesticides have offered the following specific benefits:
This is the first point worth mentioning because it is the most important. The goal of farming is simple: to create food for the people of a community. Insects and other pests, though, can intrude on the crops, reducing the amount of food available for a given population. With pesticides, farmers are able to keep these pests from consuming their food, allowing them to produce more for human consumption. A stable source of food is vital for growing the population and making society stronger.
With pesticides, farmers are able to spend less on labor but still produce more crops to sell, allowing them to make more money. Without pesticides, farmers have to hire people to weed the crops and remove pests by hand. When they use pesticides, though, these costs are significantly reduced, and the savings are passed on to those who buy the crops. People thus have more money to spend on other goods and services, which further supports the economy.
One of the most widely-recognized benefits of pesticide use has to do with public health. Mosquitoes, for example, transmit malaria, a disease that killed 438,000 people in 2015 alone. Other pests also spread potentially harmful diseases. When pesticides are used more frequently in agriculture, we’ve learned that the spread of these illnesses seems to slow, as fewer people are exposed to them via these pests. Some scientists estimate that since 1945, the use of pesticides has prevented the deaths of some 7 million people.
Before pesticides were commonly used, if farmers planned to grow more crops, they often had to convert more of the surrounding area into farmland. This displaced many animal species, and transformed entire environments as natural habitats shrank in size. However, because pesticides have been effective in maximizing the yield of a given portion of farmland, farmers have been able to produce more food on smaller patches of land, allowing them to preserve neighboring areas.
Plants are not the only food source that pesticides help us get the most out of. Farmers and ranchers are able to keep larger, healthier herds of livestock thanks to pesticides. This is because pesticides prevent livestock from being bitten by pests that may carry disease. They also eliminate many poisonous plants that livestock might otherwise consume, keeping them healthier.
As mentioned earlier, before agricultural societies took hold, humans obtained food by hunting and gathering. In these societies, people tended to have a limited number of roles to fill. The survival of the tribe was most important, and as such, there was no real place for artists, engineers, teachers, or any of the other major occupations that we now take for granted.
However, the advent of agriculture allowed communities to obtain a reliable, predictable supply of food—and even surpluses to tide them over during lean times. As such, agriculture relieved some people from the work of food production, and allowed them the opportunity to fulfill other roles within their community. With the development of modern pesticides over the last 150 years, agriculture has become even more efficient and productive. Globally, the number of people involved in food production has plummeted.
One could argue, therefore, that pesticides have helped to advance civilization and speed human progress. And in terms of our most basic needs, they have made it possible to feed more people than ever before.