Why do farmers treat their crops with pesticides? The simple answer is because of pests – a wide range of organisms that eat, infect, rot, compete with, or even kill the farmer’s crop. The more complex answer has to do with the nature of pests, with responsibility on the part of farmers, and also with food quality, food waste and food safety.
Pests Are Part Of The Natural Order
The same categories of pests that effect crops also occur in even the most pristine, wild environments. Plants are the foundation of the food chain for everything else, and so it makes sense that so many species have evolved to tap into that source of energy. Plants themselves have a variety of ways that they “attempt” to ward off pest damage or competition including the production of pesticidal chemicals. Some of those chemicals are toxic to us as well and need to be inactivated by cooking. We have taken a liking to other plant-made-pesticides like caffeine in coffee or capsaicin in hot peppers. Overall, the reality is that farmer’s crops are attacked by pests is neither surprising nor typically avoidable.
Pests do not always attack crops to a degree that requires the grower to use a pesticide, but it does often become necessary whether the farm is “Organic” or “Conventional.” When farmers are challenged with potentially damaging levels of pests, it becomes irresponsible not to do something about it. The farmer’s livelihood depends on being able to harvest a sufficient yield to pay for their production costs. There are also only finite supplies of the land and water needed for crop production. Keeping pest damage to low levels is critical for the responsible, efficient use of those resources. Farming also involved inputs like fertilizers, fuel to power tractors etc – also resources that deserve efficient use. High levels of pest infestation and damage are also problematic for the comfort and livelihoods of those who do the key farm labor tasks that feed the rest of us. Finally, if pest damage reduces crop productivity, that can translate into higher prices for consumers – something that is socially undesirable, particularly for families with limited financial resources. There are several reasons why controlling pests is the responsible thing to do for both organic and conventional farmers.
Food Quality and Food Waste
Sometimes pest damage is dramatically “yucky” from a consumer point of view. For instance, no one enjoys finding worms eating away in an ear of corn or in an apple. No on wants to see maggots crawl out of their blueberries or cherries. A piece of fruit that is just beginning to decay can taste terrible. Even fairly low levels of fungal infection can compromise the flavor of wines made from those damaged grapes. Whether crops go directly to consumers or go into a storage facility first, damage from pests that begins in the field can intensify along as the food moves through the system to the consumer, rendering the produce inedible. When farmers are able to limit pest damage in the field, their products are more likely successfully get through the system and to the consumer in good condition, and less likely to end up as food waste.
Some plant pests create true food safety threats for livestock, pests or human consumers. Certain fungi (often called molds) produce very dangerous “mycotoxins” in commodities that they infect (grains, nuts, dried items…). Often, these toxic infections occur because of insect feeding damage making the control of those pests critical for safety. Certain weeds are poisonous and can injure livestock if they contaminate hay or other animal feeds. Pesticides are key elements in the programs that keep these toxins out of our feed and food supply.
Pests are a real and often unavoidable challenge for farmers of all types. Whether they are farming “conventionally” or under the organic rules, pesticides are one of several methods that growers integrate to manage this threat and protect their investment. To fail to control pests leads to inefficient use of scarce resources, increases food waste, and compromises the quality and safety of the food supply.
So, yes, farmers use pesticides as needed. In the next post I’ll talk about why that can be done safely.