Extension spends a lot of time cautioning individuals to confine their use of pesticides. Since the latter 1950s and mid to latter 1960s, the American public has become increasingly conscious of the potential hazards associated with pesticides and increasingly conscious of pesticide-related environmental issues. Yet, we all know that pesticides are still used in food production, and one estimate even pegs annual home, yard, and garden pesticide sales at approximately $2 billion (National Research Council). This begs a question – "If there are these negatives associated with pesticide use, why do we even use the stuff?" What follows is a less than complete explanation for why pesticides are deemed important (some would say "essential") in the 21st century.
First and foremost, pesticides are used because they provide exceptional pest control at relatively low cost in a manner that provides substantial yield returns. While difficult to estimate precisely, many analysts believe that the global yield benefits of pesticide use total at least 20%. Some even claim yield benefits that stretch from 50 to 80% (Bruce, 2010). Pesticide use helps producers maintain yield and many argue that improved/maintained yield provides individual, societal, and environmental benefits.
The individual (farmer level) benefits of pesticide use seem fairly evident at first glance. Maintained yield means more dollars in the farmer's pocket. However, some analysts see individual benefits that go much deeper. Pesticides reduce the exceptional yield fluctuations associated with unchecked insect, weed, and disease problems. When these yield swings are curbed, incomes become more stable which results in less investment apprehension which benefits the larger economy – a societal benefit that some deem a real positive. In other words, farmers are more willing to buy tractors, invest in technology, etc. which many analysts claim translates into job creation.
Income stability also translates into less risky environmental behavior. If pesticides make yields more stable, producers are less prone to plant crops on marginal ground to minimize their risk which equates to maintained soil and native vegetation. For instance, pesticides decreased the need for clean plowing which resulted in less soil erosion in the Midwest over the last two decades.
Perhaps the most striking argument made for pesticide use is the estimate that 9 billion people may inhabit "the big blue marble" by 2050 (Bruce, 2010). We observed how political instability in the horn of Africa decimated food supplies during the summer of 2011. Some shudder when they consider the potential impact should yield/grain supply ever become unstable.
A second argument for continued pesticide use is associated storage and transportation benefits. Ask individuals to imagine the potential impact on stored and transported food should insects, rodents, etc. be allowed to run free, and they will then quickly site another reason to keep using pesticides. Pests are not just a problem in the field. Grain harvested and stored into the next growing season will often be riddled by pests unless pesticides are integrated with other tools to stop them. Some estimates claim that half of our produce might be lost in transit if pesticides were not used. The decreased impact of pests on stored fruit and vegetables led the National Research Council to site pesticide use as improving nutrition because, they argued, increased supply of those products led to increased fruit/vegetable consumption and more "well rounded" diets (diets that included more fruits and vegetables).
There are innumerable additional benefits that various authors cite when explaining continued pesticide use. Pesticides are used to ward off exotic pests (non-native pests like the emerald ash borer), they are used to reduce the insect vectors of disease (the integration of pesticides into mosquito management plans has been credited with curbing malaria in many parts of the globe), and they muffle the financial impact of structural pests (synthetic pesticides save millions/if not billions of dollars in damage from termites, etc.). For these reasons and more, policy makers continue to support pesticide use while simultaneously looking for ways to curb our reliance on them.
Rachel Carson, whose 1968 book, "Silent Spring", is credited with starting the modern environmental movement, noted real and tangible dangers associated with prophylactic pesticide use. However, many do not realize that she called for the "intelligent" use of pesticides rather than for the "elimination" of pesticides. Carson apparently saw benefits that required continued pesticides use, but she also saw a need to use those materials only within certain environmentally-conscious boundaries. This brings us back to the original premise of this article - pesticides are tools. They are tools that do important things for us – things that our society increasingly relies upon to maintain stability – but like any tool they must be used correctly and cautiously.