Pesticides remain a critical tool for sustainable agriculture

Agricultural pesticides are regularly in the news these days. Whether it’s another court ruling against a pesticide company for contributing to a victim’s cancer diagnosis, a contrary scientific safety review that declares that same herbicide is likely not carcinogenic, or the impacts of a popular class of insecticides on bee populations, it seems that every day we hear more evidence that would support just banning pesticides altogether. That sentiment is shared by many supporters of the “Poison-Free Food & Farming by 2030” campaign. There will be a public event on May 6, 2019 at the Vermont State House to commemorate and gather public support for this pledge.

A move toward banning pesticides as a public policy initiative would be disastrous, and would be counter to the great advances that have been made in food security, environmental protection, and public health in the past five decades since modern pesticide policy began to address the harms caused by unregulated use of pesticides and other agrichemicals, particularly from the 19030s-1960s. In light of legitimate and well-documented environmental and human health problems caused by a lack of pesticide regulation, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was passed in 1972 which gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency power to license and regulate pesticide sales and use. Almost immediately, several noteworthy pesticides were banned in the U.S. The regulatory system established under FIFRA set science-based limits on pesticide uses and calls for re-review of pesticides at regular intervals. Adoption of the Worker Protection Standard (WPS, passed 1995, updated 2015) and Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA, 1996) continue to refine pesticide policy in the U.S. for the better (Reeves, McGuire et al. 2019).

As a result, pesticides present less of a threat to workers, public health, or the environment than at any time in the last half-century. Pesticide use on a pounds per-acre basis peaked in 1980, and measures of both environmental persistence and toxicity have declined steadily in recent decades (Fernandez-Cornejo, Nehring et al. 2014). Dr. Charles Benbrook, a frequent critic of pesticide use, credited the FQPA with providing “dramatic” reductions in pesticide risk since the 1990s (Benbrook 2012). The WPS and the recent revisions made to it are credited as a “significant step forward to a cleaner, safer and more just environment” for farm workers.

That does not mean that there aren’t potential and real issues with pesticide use in the U.S. However, since the 1970s, substantial effort and investment in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs has been expended by state and federal governments, University and other public scientists, industry groups (including agrichemical companies), private consultants, non-governmental organizations, and farmers themselves. IPM is a holistic program that utilizes multiple levels of management including cultural, physical, and biological practices before chemical application to best manage crops and pests, and is the ‘standard’ system used by conventional producers of many crops. The adoption of IPM across the food system in the U.S. deserves credit for the gains that have been made not only in ensuring that pesticides are applied responsibly and with the least non-target impacts, but also with producing the healthiest and most abundant food supply in human history.

There remain many issues with the use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture, and everyone along the production and support chains is doing their part to address them. But pesticides are a critically important component to maintaining a safe and affordable food supply while promoting farmer livelihood. Work needs to be done to improve systems, especially in countries where little to no protections or other regulatory instruments to protect workers and the public are available. But despite pest management practices that are used on farms, yield losses of 17-30% are common for staple crops worldwide, with losses greatest in the countries that can least afford to lose that food. (Savary, Willocquet et al. 2019). Without crop protection, including the responsible use of pesticides, we could expect 50-80% losses  from pests for many crops (Oerke and Dehne 2004). That is unacceptable in a modern society, especially when memories of widespread food shortages and famines are only a few decades in our past.

The agricultural systems that produce our food are much refined from the 1950s and 1960s when the conflation of modern farming and cheap, effective, and, yes, often dangerous pesticides combined to rapidly increase food supply and security in the U.S. and worldwide. Fixation on chemicals from 60 years ago blinds us to the incremental progress that has transformed the food supply in that time. Denigrating important tools as “poisons” ignores the protections that have been developed that have increased pesticide safety to workers by several orders of magnitude while essentially eliminating consumer risk from pesticide residues in our food supply. Our farmers and those of us that support them in their efforts deserve better, and the consumers that rely on the safe and abundant food supply available to them deserve facts, and not fear-based messaging.

Benbrook, C. (2012). “Impacts of changing pest management systems and organic production on tree fruit pesticide residues and risk.” Acta Hort 1001: 91-102.

Fernandez-Cornejo, J., R. F. Nehring, C. Osteen, S. Wechsler, A. Martin and A. Vialou (2014). “Pesticide use in US agriculture: 21 selected crops, 1960-2008.” (USDA ERS Bulletin Number 124).

Oerke, E.-C. and H.-W. Dehne (2004). “Safeguarding production—losses in major crops and the role of crop protection.” Crop protection 23(4): 275-285.

Reeves, W. R., M. K. McGuire, M. Stokes and J. L. Vicini (2019). “Assessing the Safety of Pesticides in Food: How Current Regulations Protect Human Health.” Advances in Nutrition 10(1): 80-88.

Savary, S., L. Willocquet, S. J. Pethybridge, P. Esker, N. McRoberts and A. Nelson (2019). “The global burden of pathogens and pests on major food crops.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 3(3): 430.