Farmers in the world face an unprecedented challenge. Our global population is growing, and available farmland is decreasing. Climate change is altering weather patterns and bringing new pests and species into different climate zones. For farmers and others who are concerned with ensuring that there is enough food to meet the world's demands, there is a sense of urgency. How can farmers produce the food the world needs without sacrificing quality? Is it possible for the land to support higher demands?
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, between 20 to 40 percent of the world's crops suffer damage from pests and disease, and losses are significant. In addition, there are nearly 250 species of weeds that cause significant harm to food crops. To compound the problem, many weed seeds can lie dormant underground for up to 40 years.
Why use pesticides?
Farmers who spray their crops with pesticides are attempting to reduce the damage inflicted by pests. Pests can include any biological organism that destroys or damages a crop. Some pests consume the crop, others steal nutrients the crop needs to flourish, and still others damage the crop during storage or transport. These pests not only harm the plant; they also affect the quantity and quality of the yield, and therefore the price and availability of all the foods the crop is used to produce. Unlike the simpler, low-tech measures that a home gardener may undertake to protect their garden, defending thousands of acres of crops requires a coordinated, well-planned initiative and necessitates the use of commercial products. These are a few of the reasons that farmers have turned to agrochemical companies for help.
Crop needs vary not just by the particular species, but also by geographic location, climate, soil, and moisture level, as well as by the crop’s stage of growth and overall health. Understanding the specific needs of each crop, its current and potential pests, and how those pests damage the crop allows the farmer to determine the exact pesticide that should be applied. Many people assume that pesticides are “one size fits all”—that farmers simply spray one general type of chemical on their crops, in any amount, but this is not accurate. Pesticide application is a precise science, and farmers use different chemicals for different specific purposes. In general, pesticides are grouped according to a classification by mode of action. The mode of action describes the specific mechanism by which the pesticide inhibits the pest.
What would happen as a result of not using pesticides?
Without the use of pesticides, farmers would struggle to protect their crops from pests, and they would be forced to use labor-intensive, expensive methods, such as frequent crop rotation, hand weeding, or mechanical methods. As a result, however, there could be significant reductions in the quantity and quality of crops. Farmers would be unable to manage large crop fields without massive increases in manpower, and consumers would have to accept produce with more blemishes. These changes would also result in an increase in production costs, which would be passed on to the consumer.
Important information for consumers
Many consumers are concerned about the use of agrochemicals. To alleviate these concerns and help improve public opinion of these products, more information is needed. By educating consumers, farmers allow them to understand the benefits of pesticides. Consumers should know that:
Do farmers need to protect themselves?
Another concern consumers have regarding the use of pesticides is the effects of the products on the farmers and their workers. Today's products are technologically advanced compared to their predecessors. In contrast to the products used in the past, the pesticides being used by today's farmers are specifically designed for specific purposes. Farmers analyze soil conditions, crop rotation patterns, potential pest problems, and a variety of other factors to select the exact product they need. Application is done in a precise, controlled manner to eliminate cross-contamination and reduce run-off.
Farmers are aware of the dangers of overuse of pesticides. They have become educated on the potential consequences (such as long-term soil damage) and are generally careful to provide staff training to ensure proper application. Staff training also ensures that farm workers are using best practices to protect themselves and others from inadvertent contamination that could lead to health problems.
Pesticides provide farmers and consumers with an additional tool to effectively meet the demands of a growing population. Despite the concerns that many people have, these products make today's quantity, variety, and quality of food possible. Through continued research and the development of new, improved pesticides, our global food supply can remain intact.