Photo: Andy Powell / Flickr
Crops are enjoyed throughout the world, but while organic foods may have spiked in popularity, many feel that pesticides still hold their ground as an agricultural necessity.
In recent decades, pesticide use has increased tenfold in developing nations thanks to population growth and urbanization. Food must be produced in mass quantities in little time, and nearly eight billion pounds of pesticides are used to preserve fruit and vegetable supplies each year. In areas such as Bangladesh, for example, the use of herbicides and related chemicals has increased by over 400 percent since the 1990s. In Argentina, usage has increased by 815 percent.
Pesticides dates back to the 1940s. Prior to WWII, organic compounds such as sodium chlorate were employed to relieve farms of pests and prevent crop destruction, but these compounds often required excessive application, proving difficult for farmers everywhere.
As the years rolled by, chemicals like DDT seemed to present a valid answer. DDT was considered extremely effective, primarily because it eradicated a wide array of pests very quickly. Furthermore, it worked over long periods, was impervious to rain and harsh weather, and was cheap and easy in its application methods, but it wasn’t long before problems began to occur. For instance, DDT was not selective in its extermination policies – friend or pest, it didn’t matter. If you were an insect, the chemical was taking you out. DDT also posed threats to both wildlife and humans.
Today’s pesticides hold similar dangers. Pollinators such as honeybees have experienced massive declines in population, and humans in heavily exposed regions have been known to develop cancers, respiratory problems and other severe complications. Things are particularly rough in developing nations, where workers are less likely to use protective gear.
Despite these problems, pesticides are still being produced on a massive scale, and the Food and Agriculture Organization is now asking countries to follow guidelines set forth in the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management. The program is designed to limit exposure to relative chemicals during storage processes and overall use, but these guidelines are completely voluntary, and many nations have resisted taking part in its health-driven framework.
So what does one do? How can we offset the conditions that pesticides present? Jules Pretty of the University of Essex has studied sustainable agricultural practices for the last 25 years. He states that several of these methods date back to the dark ages, yet still work just as well today. Pretty recently monitored over 80 crop fields in about 24 different countries in both Asia and Africa. Through practices such as crop rotation and pheromone traps, several of these countries were able to limit pesticide use while yielding greater crop supplies.
“Thirty percent of the crop systems were able to transition to zero pesticides,” Pretty explains.
The difficulty behind adopting these methods is that farmers need to be fully convinced of the benefits before employing non-chemical means themselves, but Pretty is confident that farmer field schools (outdoor learning environments that invoke agricultural experiments) can supply necessary education.
“The learning is very significant,” he states. “We’re providing both small and large farmers with the opportunity to be able to say, ‘We know what to do; we don’t need pesticides.’” Other less harmful methods of controlling pests include biological agents (i.e. praying mantises and natural insect predators), mechanical control traps and horticultural oils and soaps.