What Are the Benefits and Harms of Pesticide Use?
Before delving into the regulation of pesticides we must develop
a better appreciation of the benefits and potential harms of pes-
ticides. The benefits are that they protect crops from damage
by insects, weeds, and pathogens, allowing farmers to produce
more food using the same amount of inputs. For consumers,
this means greater availability of foods and lower prices.
Peanuts are one of the healthiest foods and are relatively
inexpensive. If no pesticides were allowed, peanut yields would
fall by 78 percent; about one-third of this reduction would be
due to the absence of herbicides and two-thirds to the absence
of insecticides and fungicides combined. As fewer peanuts were
sold on the market, prices would rise, probably by about 150 per-
cent. Rice is a staple food for much of the world, and without
pesticides yields would fall by 57 percent. If they were grown
without pesticides, the yield for some of our healthiest foods,
like apples, lettuce, tomatoes, and oranges, would fall by more
than 50 percent (all are US numbers). These are the same fruits
and vegetables experts keep telling us to eat in greater portions.
Pesticides allow us to produce the same amount of food using
less land, and make it easier for farmers to employ no-tillage
farming techniques where no plowing is performed, thereby
reducing soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. Many of the geneti-
cally modified crops today are valued because of their resis-
tance to pesticides, but we defer this issue to another chapter.
A Chinese cook recently demonstrated the potential harms
of pesticides when he mistook a pesticide for a spice. One per-
son died and twenty others were sickened. Pesticides per se are
not poisons though. The First Law of Toxicology, established
in the sixteenth century, is that it is the dose, not the chemi-
cal, that makes a poison. We are constantly exposed to natu-
ral pesticides in our daily life. After all, plants make their own
pesticides to ward away pests, and we eat many of these plants.
If people are exposed to them at unsafe dosages, pesticides
can cause cancer and a variety of neurological disorders, like