Find me a consumer not involved with farming who’s enthused about the use of pesticides in agriculture, and I’ll show you a jolly old man riding in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer.
I must give credit to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) for tackling a controversy many advocates of modern food and livestock production would just as soon ignore: The use of pesticides to support agricultural production.
Even the very word itself is loaded with negative imagery, to the point that from a PR perspective, it would be easier to simply acknowledge that most consumer opinions are distrustful, disinterested and ultimately detrimental toward the entire category of pest- and weed-management chemicals — and then stop talking about it.
Forget that pesticides have arguably been the biggest boon to agriculture since the invention of synthetic fertilizer. It would be harder to find someone not connected with agriculture giving a thumbs up to pesticide use than it would be to find a Black Friday shopper who insists on paying full retail markup.
The scientists who authored the just-released CAST report, “The Contributions of Pesticides to Pest Management in Meeting the Global Need for Food Production by 2050” (never let it be said that the scientific community won’t sacrifice brevity for the precision of a lengthy title), aggregate herbicides, insecticides and fungicides in their analysis, which at least recognizes that the average person makes exactly that mental conflation whenever the subject arises in everyday conversation.
Which it rarely does, and that’s at the heart of the problem.
Public opinion is very positive when the subject is dealing with what’s politically labeled as “food insecurity,” a euphemism for hunger, starvation and at the very least, serious malnutrition that materially affects people’s health, well-being and lifespan.
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, as many as 800 million people worldwide suffer from food insecurity. Here at home, a 2013 USDA study conducted by the Census Bureau calculated that 14.3 percent of U.S. households do not have sufficient food on a daily basis. That percentage represents about 50 million people, including more than 8.3 million school-age children.
That statistic is coupled with the obvious issue of global population growth and what that implies for the world’s food supply. By every study and every metric compiled, there is a high likelihood that more than nine billion humans will inhabit the planet by 2050, which means that without wiping out the world’s forestland and rangeland — or depleting essential global energy and water resources — somehow food productivity has to be increased by almost 30% in just the next couple of decades.
H-m-m-m . . . Could it be coincidental that the CAST study noted that the amount of worldwide of crop yield lost yearly to pests is approximately 30 percent? I don’t know, but it certainly seems like a fit.
As the report noted, “When pesticides are effectively applied and fully integrated into a comprehensive approach, the world will be on its way to providing sustenance for the nine billion people who will be alive in 2050.”
The study’s authors noted that for most crops “some type of disease management is necessary,” and the exclusion of pathogens from agricultural areas where they are not already established is the best way to prevent future problems.
That’s just common sense, and in the abstract, few people would dispute that contention. But discussions about chemical pesticides don’t take place in the abstract, and with the scare tactics employed in most advertising for organically grown food products, people are rather easily persuaded that the use of pesticides is merely an option with which greedy farmers without much of a conscience hose down their crops, just to line their pockets with added profits.
As if any agricultural chemicals are cheap to buy or easy to apply.
The public’s perspective
The CAST report noted a number of beneficial aspects of pesticide use: For most crops, herbicide use increases yields, is more efficient than hand weeding and facilitates the adoption of no-till crop production, which has positive environmental benefits.
All true, yet unfortunately, yet insufficient to sway public opinion.
Touting the benefits of chemical pesticides — and let’s face it: most of the pubic conflates pesticide use and herbicide application as they relate to the debate over Roundup-Ready GMO crop varieties as one and the same — without addressing the larger issues surrounding its use is equivalent to listing the wonders of antibiotics without once mentioning the problem of antibiotic resistance.
If science has provided us with one lesson in this modern world, it’s the reality that Nature cannot be “controlled.” Not without consequences that are often as bad, or worse, than the original problem.
We can “control” floods by damming up our rivers, only to find out that salmon can’t survive in appreciable numbers when they have to migrate upstream through huge stagnant lakes and navigate fish ladders. We can “manage” forestlands by planting monocultures of hybrid species, only to watch helplessly as insect and fungal disease wipe out entire areas of trees. And we can attempt to wipe out insects or fungal diseases or noxious weeds, only to find out that the survivors regroup and return with a vengeance.
Integrated pest management, a systems approach that emphasizes the sustainability of pest control methods and maintenance of insecticide viability, offers the potential to balance the yield-enhancing impact of pest- and weed-control benefits with the potentially detrimental impact of applying toxic chemicals that invariably end up in watersheds and (at least in trace amounts) in the food supply. The key to successful implementation of IPM, however, is less about management and more about finding ways to limit pesticide use, period.
That mandate has to be front and center in any discussion about the contributions of pesticides in agriculture.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.