While the use of pesticides has mushroomed since the introduction of monoculture (the agricultural practice of growing only one crop on a large amount of acreage), the application of toxins to control pests is by no means new.
The use of sulfur as an insecticide dates back before 500 b.c.e. Salts from heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury were used as insecticides from the fifteenth century until the early part of the twentieth century, and residues of these toxic compounds are still being accumulated in plants that are grown in soil where these materials were used.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, natural plant extracts, such as nicotine sulfate from tobacco leaves and rotenone from tropical legumes, were used as insecticides.
Other natural products, such as pyrethrum from the chrysanthemum flower, garlic oil, lemon oil, and red pepper, have long been used to control insects. Biopesticides are beneficial microbes, fungi, insects, or animals that kill pests.
The major types of pesticides in common use are insecticides (to kill insects), nematocides (to kill nematodes), fungicides (to kill fungi), herbicides (to kill weeds), androdenticides (to kill rodents). Herbicides and insecticides make up the majority of the pesticides applied in the environment.
In 1939 the discovery of dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane (DDT) as a strong insecticide opened the door for the synthesis of a wide array of synthetic organic compounds to be used as pesticides. Chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT were the first group of synthetic pesticides.
Other commonly used chlorinated hydrocarbons have in the past included aldrin, endrin, lindane, chlordane, and mirex. Because of their low biodegradability and persistence in the environment, the use of these compounds was banned or severely restricted in the United States after years of use.
Organophosphates such as malathion, parathion, and methamidophos have replaced the chlorinated hydrocarbons. These compounds biodegrade in a fairly short time but are generally much more toxic to humans and other animals than the compounds they replaced. In addition, they are water-soluble and therefore more likely to contaminate water supplies.
Carbamates such as carbaryl, maneb, and aldicarb have also been used in place of chlorinated hydrocarbons. These compounds rapidly biodegrade and are less toxic to humans than organophosphates, but they are less effective in killing insects.
Herbicides are classified according to their method of killing rather than their chemical composition. As their name suggests, contact herbicides such as atrazine and paraquat kill when they come in contact with a plant’s leaf surface.
Contact herbicides generally disrupt the photosynthetic mechanism. Systemic herbicides such as diuron and fenuron circulate throughout the plant after being absorbed.
They generally mimic the plant hormones and cause abnormal growth to the extent that the plant can no longer supply sufficient nutrients to support growth. Soil sterilants such as triflurain, diphenamid, and daiapon kill microorganisms necessary for plant growth and also act as systemic herbicides.
Fungicides account for 12 percent of all pesticides used by farmers, insecticides account for 19 percent, and herbicides account for 69 percent. These pesticides have been used primarily on four crops: soybeans, wheat, cotton, and corn.
Approximately $5 billion is spent each year on pesticides in the United States, and about 20 percent of this is for non farm use. On a per-unit-of-land basis, homeowners apply approximately five times as much pesticide as do farmers. On a worldwide basis, approximately 2.5 tons (2,270 kilograms) of pesticides are applied each year.
Most of these chemicals are applied in developed countries, but the amount of pesticide used in developing countries is rapidly increasing. Approximately $20 billion is spent worldwide each year, and this expenditure is expected to increase in the future, particularly in the developing countries.
Pesticide use has had a beneficial impact on the lives of humans by increasing food production and reducing food costs. Even with pesticides, pests reduce the world’s potential food supply by as much as 55 percent.
Without pesticides, this loss would be much higher, resulting in increased starvation and higher food costs. Pesticides also increase the profit margin for farmers. It has been estimated that for every dollar spent on pesticides, farmers experience an increase in yield worth three to five dollars.
Pesticides appear to work better and faster than alternative methods of controlling pests. These chemicals can rapidly control most pests, are cost effective, can be easily shipped and applied, and have a long shelf life compared to alternative methods. In addition, farmers can quickly switch to another pesticide if genetic resistance to a given pesticide develops.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the use of pesticides is the fact that pesticides have saved lives. It has been suggested that since the introduction of DDT, the use of pesticides has prevented approximately seven million premature human deaths from insect-transmitted diseases such as sleeping sickness, bubonic plague, typhus, and malaria.
Perhaps even more lives have been saved from starvation because of the increased food production resulting from the use of pesticides. It has been argued that this one benefit far outweighs the potential health risks of pesticides.
In addition, new pesticides are continually being developed, and safer and more effective pest control may be available in the future. In spite of all the advantages of using pesticides, their benefit must be balanced against the potential environmental damage they may cause.
An ideal pesticide should have the following characteristics: It should not kill any organism other than the target pest; it should in noway affect the health of nontarget organisms; it should degrade into nontoxic chemicals in a relatively short time; it should prevent the development of resistance in the organism it is designed to kill; and it should be cost-effective.
Since no currently available pesticide meets all of these criteria, a number of environmental problems have developed, one of which is broad-spectrum poisoning.
Most, if not all, chemical pesticides are not selective; they kill a wide range of organisms rather than just the target pest. Killing beneficial insects, such as bees, lady bird beetles, and wasps, may result in a range of problems. For example, reduced pollination and explosions in the populations of unaffected insects can occur.
When DDT was first used as an insecticide, many people believed that it was the final solution for controlling many insect pests.
Initially, DDT dramatically reduced the number of problem insects; within a few years, however, a number of species had developed genetic resistance to the chemical and could no longer be controlled with it. By the 1990’s there were approximately two hundred insect species with genetic resistance to DDT.
Other chemicals were designed to replace DDT, but many insects also developed resistance to these newer insecticides. As a result, although many synthetic chemicals have been introduced to the environment, the pest problem is still as great as it ever was.
Depending on the type of chemical used, pesticides remain in the environment for varying lengths of time. Chlorinated hydrocarbons, for example, can persist in the environment for up to fifteen years.
From an economic standpoint, this can be beneficial because the pesticide has to be applied less frequently, but from an environmental standpoint, it is detrimental. In addition, when many pesticides are degraded, their breakdown products, which may also persist in the environment for long periods of time, can be toxic to other organisms.
Pesticides may concentrate as they move up the food chain. All organisms are integral components of at least one food pyramid. While a given pesticide may not be toxic to species at the base, it may have detrimental effects on organisms that feed at the apex because the concentration increases at each higher level of the pyramid, a phenomenon known as biomagnification.
With DDT, for example, some birds can be sprayed with the chemical without any apparent effect, but if these same birds eat fish that have eaten insects that contain DDT, they lose the ability to metabolize calcium properly. As a result, they lay soft-shelled eggs, which causes deaths of most of the offspring.
Pesticides can be hazardous to human health. Many pesticides, particularly insecticides, are toxic to humans, and thousands of people have been killed by direct exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. Many of these deaths have been children who were accidentally exposed to toxic pesticides because of careless packaging or storage.
Numerous agricultural laborers, particularly in developing countries where there are no stringent guidelines for handling pesticides, have also been killed as a result of direct exposure to these chemicals.Workers in pesticide factories are also a high-risk group, and many of them have been poisoned through job-related contact with the chemicals.
Pesticides have been suspected of causing longterm health problems such as cancer. Some of the pesticides have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, but there is currently no direct evidence to show a cause-and-effect relationship between pesticides and cancer in humans.