Farmers use many tools to produce the food that ends up on our plates. Among them are crop protection products, also known as pesticides.
Crop protection helps control weeds, pests and diseases that starve food crops of the nutrients, sunlight and water needed to thrive.
Pesticide is a general term that covers three broad areas of crop production. Insecticides control worms, bugs and other insects that can easily consume crops in the field or grains and food in storage. Herbicides will control and prevent weeds from overcoming the crop and lowering the harvest. And fungicides prevent and control diseases which attack our crops.
What are the different types of crop protection and why are they used?
Chemical sprays are one method used to manage weeds and insects, but there are several approaches. Many farmers in the U.S. practice integrated pest management (IPM). This means that farmers use a variety of methods to grow and protect the crop and will only choose chemical control when it is the better option.
Other IPM tools include things like crop rotation, better plant genetics (disease and insect resistance) and natural predators. Most farms use a combination of practices to protect crops from weeds and insects.
What would happen if farmers didn’t use crop protection?
Pests – weeds, insects and fungus – are the greatest threat to growing any crop. Without pesticides, some crops could not be grown on a large scale, so our diets would not be as diverse.
Without pesticides, fruits and vegetables would be stunted, riddled with injuries and contaminated with microbes, contributing to food waste.
Without crop protection, food would also be more expensive as more of it would be lost to pests. Even with the use of modern crop protection products, 20 to 40 percent of potential food production is lost every year to pests.
How do pesticides affect the environment?
There are tradeoffs to using pesticides, to using organic methods or to using nothing at all. Proper pesticide use can help protect part of the environment.
Efficiently using farmland – growing more food on less land – also protects forests and wildlife habitats from being cultivated.
Chemical weed, disease and insect products often require much less time, equipment and energy than traditional production practices; thereby generating a lower carbon footprint and environmental benefits.
But using chemical pesticides does involve some risk. The compounds are designed to kill a living organism such as a microbe, weed or insect, so they need to be used responsibly.
Some crop protection chemicals have a negative impact on beneficial insects, such as bees and butterflies. The agricultural industry is researching ways to reduce the negative impact. Some of the older, more toxic compounds have been banned and replaced by newer ones that are more targeted to specific species.
Is my food safe from pesticide residues?
Pesticides are regulated in the U.S. to be sure that they are as safe as possible for people and the environment.
The U.S. has an extensive regulatory system, and whether it’s household chemicals or agricultural herbicides and insecticides, all chemicals go through extensive toxicology testing to look at the benefits and the risks of the product. This is especially true of pesticides used on food crops.
All foods, whether they are grown with conventional farming or organic methods, are regulated and safe. Any pesticide that comes to market must be approved and certified by the EPA, USDA and FDA.
Source: Dr. Tim Durham, Crop Science, Ferrum College; Jeffrey Graybill, MS, CCA, Agronomy, Penn State University; Best Food Facts