Pros and Cons of Pesticides in Agriculture

Jane Marsh - November 25, 2022

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Pesticides have been a part of the agricultural sector since farmers started growing food; however, they became more widespread in the United States in the 1930s and particularly following World War II. Here, we’ll discuss pesticides’ pros and cons.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, different types of pesticides have a specific purpose, including:

  • Algaecides: Kills off algae
  • Antimicrobial: Controls microbes like bacteria and viruses
  • Disinfectants: Controls bacterial growth and viruses
  • Fungicides: Treats mold, mildew and rust
  • Herbicides: Prevents weeds from growing
  • Insecticides and Insect Growth Regulators: Controls insects and reproduction
  • Rodenticides: Kills rodents, such as rats and mice
  • Wood preservatives: Helps wood build resistance to pests and fungi

Here are some important statistics that relay the nuances of people’s feelings toward pesticides in America:

  • 64% feel pesticide use is a very serious or somewhat serious problem.
  • People’s attitudes shift when they hear pesticides make food cheaper and help farmers stay employed.
  • 18% feel pesticides should be avoided at all costs.
  • 73% support inventing technology to streamline pesticide spraying to make it more sustainable.
  • 16% are less likely to support representatives who defend pesticide use.

Regardless of which side of the aisle you fall, science proves there are pros and cons for using pesticides in agriculture.

3 Pros of Pesticides

It may come as a surprise to staunch anti-pesticide advocates, but pesticide use has some advantages. Here are three pros to consider.

1. Controls Harmful Pests and Disease

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 20% to 40% of global crop production is lost to pests each year. That equates to a $220 billion loss for the global economy and $70 billion in the United States.

Pesticides help control the influx of destructive pests, such as mosquitoes, locusts, Japanese beetles, corn rootworms, and Colorado potato bugs.

Studies predict that fruit production would decrease by 78% without pesticides, in addition to a 54% reduction in vegetables and a 32% reduction in wheat.

High mosquito populations are a grave concern when it comes to pests, as they tend to carry serious diseases that could be fatal for humans, like malaria, yellow fever, and the West Nile virus. Other times, pests can increase the prevalence of allergens and asthma in humans and pets. 

Pesticides help control the occurrence of allergens and viruses while also killing off certain plant diseases caused by parasites—for example, bacteria and viruses, fungi, or pollution. 

2. Helps Yield More Crops

The global food demand is expected to rise from 35% to 56% between 2010 and 2050 as the population increases. However, climate change impacts—droughts, floods, major storms, etc.—increase hunger and food insecurity projections.

Since pests and diseases tend to reduce crop yields significantly, pesticides offer a way to overcome future food shortages.

While many reports have challenged the need for pesticides in agriculture, farmers recognize the importance of using them to maintain thriving crop yields. Future scientific and technological advancements will allow for fewer pesticides, though. Tools like drones, GPS, and self-propelled sprayers make pesticide dispersal either less necessary or more precise, using fewer resources.

3. Decreases Cost of Food

Because pesticides can help farmers yield higher amounts of crops, they tend to keep food costs lower for consumers. 

Farmers are significantly impacted by agricultural losses, leading them to charge extra when they sell their products on the market. These additional costs typically trickle down to the consumer. However, with pesticides, farmers are less likely to have crop damage, ultimately keeping prices lower. 

Higher food prices also impact consumers in other ways. For example, when food production is downward and costs increase dramatically, low-income families struggle to afford the necessities. 

3 Cons of Pesticides

For every benefit of pesticide use, there are several disadvantages, as well. Here are three ways pesticides are harmful. 

1. Negatively Impacts Human Health

Pesticides are easily purchasable for large farms and smaller residential gardens. However, they can have serious implications for human health. Take these facts and figures into consideration:

Different pesticides cause various health effects, from damage to the nervous system to skin and eye irritation to other impacts on hormone levels and the endocrine system.

Extensive research has shown that significant exposure to certain pesticide chemicals can increase your risk of developing cancer. One study demonstrated a correlation between insecticides, herbicides and fungicides with the prevalence of myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, and leukemia. 

2. Harmful to the Environment

The CDC defines pesticide drift as the movement of pesticide particles away from their targeted location. Drift and runoff can have dire consequences on the environment, including air, water, and soil health. 

Although some entities argue that pesticides are necessary for prosperous crop yields, the flipside is they can modify soil health for years, impacting future crop reproduction, growth, and species diversity. Synthetic fertilizers destroy the soil’s organic nitrogen-fixing bacteria — also known as prokaryotic microorganisms — leading to an overall change in its composition. To put it simply, plants and all life need nitrogen to grow.   

Pesticide chemicals can also seep into and contaminate groundwater, which supplies 38% of U.S. drinking water. Around 70% of global groundwater goes back into agriculture, meaning contamination cycles continue and people keep feeding it back into plants. Finally, 17% of endangered species require groundwater to live. If those sources are polluted, then the planet will lose more biodiversity.

Animals and insect biodiversity are significantly impacted by pesticide contamination, as well. For example, honey bees are crucial for agriculture. However, even low-dose pesticides can cause unnecessary bee deaths and several other health effects on the colonies, such as negative impacts on metabolism, behavior, cognition, and reproduction.

3. Pests Can Build Up Resistance

Similar to how humans build up a resistance to certain antibiotics, pests can build a resistance to pesticide chemicals. Essentially, the more pesticides used, the more likely pests will develop immunity.

There are currently over 600 species of pests, including insects, spiders, and mites, that are resistant to the effects of pesticides. 

Resistance to pesticides happens when a small portion of a pest population survives and breeds after exposure, passing the genetic trait to the next generation. As new populations face pesticide exposure, they too will become resistant.

Pest resistance to chemicals causes pesticides to lose their effectiveness in combatting infestations. This could lead to crop reductions and more disease in humans and the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employs the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach to better control pests and avoid pesticide resistance. Some of the basic principles of IPM include monitoring the types of pests that are present, exercising measures that require less pesticide use, spot treating rather than spraying wide-ranging areas, and avoiding mixing different kinds of chemicals. 

The Future of Agriculture Demands Alternatives

Whether you are pro pesticides or against them in agriculture, future food security will require more sustainable crop protection and production approaches. This is particularly true for maintaining soil health. 

More extensive, careful mitigations need to be in place further to protect humans and the environment from harmful chemicals. Likewise, new technologies that aim to spot target pests and diseases more effectively can positively impact future crop yields.

This post was updated May 23, 2024, to include more updated information.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.