It’s a contentious debate with strong arguments on both sides. Are pesticides harmful to the environment and human health?
The answer is, like many things, not a simple black and white one. In trying to coax an answer to this question out of the available evidence, it behooves us to fully examine all of the research to reach an educated conclusion as to whether there should be undue concern when using those products that contain pesticides. In addition to weighing the scientific evidence, it is also necessary to examine the common sense pros and cons associated with pesticide use as it currently exists.
The Scientific Opinion on Pesticides
If you ask the simple question “What is the scientific consensus regarding the use of pesticides?” you will likely get many different conclusions, as there is no specific evidence that the current generation of pesticides is harmful to the environment or to people’s health if used properly and in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions.
There is little doubt that the first few generations of pesticides were harmful in many ways, and many of those have since been banned outright or merely fallen out of favor with those who need pesticides for the operation of their farms. One primary concern among those who deride the use of pesticides is that they contain many synthetic chemicals that have been known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. However, the doses that these animals were exposed to are many orders of magnitude greater than those that would be seen in even the most extreme cases of human exposure, and therefore it can be assumed reasonably that there is little threat posed from these potential carcinogens in the general population.
What are the Benefits of Continuing to Use Pesticides?
Knowing that there are potential risks involved with the use of these chemicals, it is a good idea to take a step back and use a common sense approach to their applications. This can easily be accomplished by examining some of the benefits that can be realized through the judicious use of pesticides. The first and by far most important advantage to their use is the fact that they allow for greater protection of numerous varieties of food crops from the ravages of pest species.
This means that they give farmers in all areas of the world the opportunity to produce more crops at a higher quality than would otherwise be possible. This leads to a greater level of food security for many in the world, which is of particular importance to those in developing nations for whom one bad pest season or infestation can make the difference between eating and going hungry or perhaps even starving.
They also provide a benefit through the control of some of the insects that spread dangerous diseases such as malaria. Again this is of vital importance to those living in poor countries and tropical regions, and has directly contributed to millions of lives saved over the past few decades.
A smaller but still not insignificant advantage is the fact that pesticides allow us to get rid of annoying or unsightly pests both in agricultural settings and in our own homes, which can increase peace of mind and decrease the stress associated with infestations of unwanted insects.
The Double-Edged Sword of Pesticides
Although it’s clear that the use of these products has many advantages both for the farmer and for the homeowner, that is not to say their application is without some drawbacks. The first things that many people think of when they think of pesticides are the powerful chemicals that go into their production.
Because most people are not knowledgeable about the specific chemicals contained in these products, they may not be aware of the possible side effects resulting from their use. This can easily be combated by ensuring that the product descriptions contain pertinent information about the exact chemical composition of the pesticides and any side effects that might result. Although some products have the potential to cause problems such as irritation and coughing if improperly handled, they are quite safe to use if regular common sense precautions are taken during their application.
Pesticides have also been implicated in a serious environmental crisis that is currently occurring worldwide. This issue is known as colony collapse disorder, and it is affecting huge numbers of honeybees around the world. This is a serious problem because these bees are so vital to agriculture through pollination. Although the role and the extent of pesticide involvement in this disorder is not fully known, there is little doubt in the scientific community that pesticides and other industrial pollution are a contributing factor.
The use of pesticides in agriculture, (which accounts for the majority of pesticide use worldwide) is also creating an issue with the fact that many insects are developing a natural resistance to the pesticides that have been previously used. Farmers and others in the agricultural industry have been responding to this in many cases by simply using much more than the recommended amount of pesticide to have the same controlling effect on the insect population. This obviously is very detrimental to the environment and should be discouraged or outlawed, although the underlying issue is still a massive problem for the use of chemical pesticides as a solution to insect problems.
Another drawback that has been raised is the fact that because of the strength of the chemicals necessary to achieve the desired effects, it may be the case in some situations that the manufacturers producing these products are polluting the environment at the site of production. Although government regulations have been put in place to eliminate this, it still occurs with more regularity than should be accepted, and perhaps stricter punishments for those companies found to be violating these regulations would do more to eliminate the problem entirely.
This concern has been ameliorated somewhat by the adoption of regulations aimed at making sure that those companies that produce pesticides abide by common sense environmental protections and are punished with fines and levies if they should overstep their boundaries. Although this system is not perfect and accidents still occur, it has been sufficient to keep the environment reasonably safe while still allowing for the beneficial effects of pesticide production.
The Future of Pesticide Production and Use
Because there is no easy answer to the debate over pesticide safety, with both the pros and cons being represented, it is unclear the direction that the industry will take in the future. It is most likely to continue the way it has, with advances in technology making pesticides safer for the general public while still controlling the pests that destroy food and make our lives miserable on occasion.
The regulatory framework will also play a part in the future, although it is much harder to anticipate what direction this will take as it is subject to many different interest groups and changes in the overall environment of public opinion.