We regularly hear about the downside of pesticides to human health, but there seems to be no attempt to stop the production of these synthesised chemicals. Despite the number of news reports highlighting the adverse effects of pesticides, their use remains rampant. What is the story behind pesticides? Is there more to pesticides than the toxic chemical they are portrayed to be? Or are they actually leading us toward imminent disaster? Let’s understand what pesticides mean to answer these questions.
“Pesticides” is a general term used for four main products that it includes: herbicides, used to kill weeds, fungicides to keep away mould, rodenticides for killing rats and the like, and insecticides to prevent the attack of arthropods like locusts which could potentially harm food crops. Methods had to be devised to feed the rapidly increasing human population that is now set to reach 8 billion by November this year. Globally, 828 million people suffer from hunger and over 860 million live in extreme poverty with less than $1.90 a day. At the same time, the earth’s resources are dwindling under severe pressure to increase the efficiency of food production. To ensure high crop yield, the practice of monoculture came into being, wherein farmers grow only a single type of crop in a particular area. They select a crop that is most suitable for a region and aim to monopolise that particular crop. In polyculture, on the other hand, farmers would have to provide for multiple crops on a single field. This means tracking each crop for when it needs to be sowed, how it is to be maintained using different fertilisers and when it needs to be harvested every season. While monoculture results in higher produce, polyculture requires immense effort in taking care of multiple crops.
However, any ecosystem with less diversity is prone to collapse, and that is a problem with monoculture too. In the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, all the potato crops were affected by a water mould called Phytophthora infestans. There was no crop diversification being followed, and all the farmers had been forced to grow potatoes to supply the British market and had to also feed their own families from the same produce. When the famine hit, all crops were destroyed, and over one million people lost their lives due to starvation and other famine-related diseases. Despite food imports and other relief measures undertaken during this period, nothing could combat the crisis that had befallen Irish farmers due to the practice of monoculture. To avoid such a calamity, high doses of pesticides are now utilised globally to protect crops in monoculture farms.
In earlier times, farmers across the world were using arsenic, a natural element that is highly toxic, as pest control. It was with the introduction of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) that a new era of synthetic pesticides began. DDT is a contact poison for insects and its toxic characteristics were discovered in 1939 by a Swiss chemist named Paul Hermann Müller, who later won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. It was a game changer as it became a highly effective solution for agriculture, replacing arsenic which was harmful to humans. Müller was neither a physician nor a medical researcher, however, his discovery helped control the spread of mosquitoes, saving many from malaria during the Second World War. The use of synthesised pesticides in the Global North saw higher crop productivity, which led to the Green Revolution. The benefits of an insecticide like DDT were groundbreaking, preventing large-scale food crises and boosting economic growth.
However, DDT had consequences that people did not see coming. This chemical compound greatly affected birds present on and around the farmland — with altered calcium metabolism, birds laid eggs with thinner eggshells thereby risking the lives of newborns. There was also a significant reduction in the birds’ reproduction rates. In fact, DDT impacted some predatory birds like the bald eagle in such a way that they were once almost extinct and had to be bred back artificially. After seeing the impact that DDT had on wildlife, it was banned in the United States in 1972 and was replaced with alternative and safer pesticides.
Using pesticides in farming has another troubling aspect to it, which is referred to as the pesticide treadmill. It means that the more we use it, the more we will have to increase its amount in every successive use. This is because the bugs tend to develop higher resistance against these chemicals over subsequent generations. Their populations evolve to a point where the pesticides stop affecting them altogether, creating a strain of pest populations that are highly difficult to control.
Pesticides seep into the ground and pollute the groundwater. They are also carried along with the runoff water to nearby water bodies where various fish species are adversely affected. Bees and some birds are considered to be crop pests as well, and several unfortunately die in this crossfire.
So what would happen if we were to stop the use of pesticides suddenly? According to a study, this would result in a 78% loss of fruit production, a 54% loss of vegetable production, and a 32% loss of cereal production.
Although there are several cons to using pesticides, cutting them off from agriculture will surely decrease crop production. One of the most effective solutions can be to shift to cleaner agricultural practices like permaculture while we work towards finding safer and less harmful pesticides. However, to find the actual solution, one needs to look at the broader picture of feeding the growing human population by incorporating better agricultural practices that include fair rights and incentives for farmers to shift to organic practices. It is important to also note that lands occupied to extract raw materials for various industries have caused soil degradation and shortage of water, thus impacting surfaces that could have sustained agriculture.
At Wildlife SOS, our team manages a small, 3-acre organic farm, where no pesticides, insecticides or chemical fertilisers are used. As it is a smaller farm in comparison to most farmlands, its crops are easier to monitor without the constant use of pesticides. However, managing it is still a demanding task, and our team works tirelessly to ensure that the produce turns out well. The farm utilises runoff water from the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, while using vermicompost made naturally and manure from the nearby gaushala (cowshed).
If you wish to visit our centre to witness this firsthand and take part in our conservation activities, do email us at email@example.com