By Brian Hefty

One of the most popular requests we get at Ag PhD is for information on pesticide safety, as farmers need to justify their use of these products when speaking to non-farmers.  Here are six things you can discuss with your non-farm friends:

  1. The dose makes the poison.  When I looked up the definition of a poison on Google recently, here’s what it said:  “A substance that is CAPABLE of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed.”  Sounds to me like almost ANYTHING “could” be a poison.  How about water?  That is capable of killing you, so I guess water is a poison now, too.  Here’s my point.  Our society today over-dramatizes almost everything.  For example, the last time I checked, no biotech (or GMO as some people call it) product has ever killed anyone… EVER!  Yet if you listen to the media, biotechnology is the worst thing ever.
  2. LD50.  This stands for “lethal dose 50%”.  How much of any substance does it take to kill 50% of test subjects?  The LD50 for table salt is 3000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.  The LD50 for atrazine is also 3000.  However, the LD50 for caffeine is 200, which means it takes about 15 times more atrazine to kill you than caffeine, yet most Americans readily consume a lot of caffeine every day.  If you look at the facts, caffeine is far more dangerous than atrazine, yet which one is under scrutiny today?
  3. Even with pesticides that are relatively safe to humans and the environment, in order to be even safer the use of personal protective equipment is required by applicators.  Yet, when was the last time you saw someone wearing personal protective equipment while filling their car’s gas tank?  You may laugh, but gasoline contains benzene, xylene, and other compounds that aren’t good for you.  I’m not trying to start a panic at the gas pump here.  I’m simply trying to point out there is nothing we spray on our crop on our farm that is even close to as dangerous to humans as gasoline, where literally just a small sip could kill you.
  4. The active ingredient glyphosate, as well as each “ALS” herbicide, works on an enzyme found only in plants.  Humans don’t have that enzyme, which means these products are much, much safer than some of the old, harsh pesticides that used to be sprayed across our nation.  However, travel to a third-world country sometime.  Darren and I have, and we’ve seen some products that were banned in the U.S. years ago.  Where do we get some of our food in the wintertime when it’s too cold in the U.S. to produce enough fruit and vegetables?  In some cases, it’s some of those same third-world countries using pesticides no American farmer can or would ever use due to safety concerns.
  5. The most popular insecticide chemistry, pyrethroid, is the synthetic reproduction of the insect-killing portion of the chrysanthemum flower.  Strobilurin fungicides are derived from naturally-occurring wood-rooting fungi.  Callisto, in the HPPD chemistry family, comes from the callistemon tree.  Treflan was originally being developed as a clothing dye.  Just because something is a pesticide, that doesn’t mean it has to be dangerous to humans or the environment.  There are many natural products currently used or in development today that will make our industry even safer.  As another example, Regalia Rx is a fungicide developed from the plant knotweed.  In other words, it already exists in the environment, but it is now getting used over the top of crops to help reduce disease issues.
  6. Our daily consumption of natural pesticides is estimated at 10,000+ to 1 vs. synthetic pesticides.  If the natural pesticides were tested the same as the synthetic pesticides, many may not get labeled by EPA.  Think about what happens when a plant gets attacked by weeds, insects, or diseases.  Without pesticides to fend off these problems, plants develop more natural carcinogens.  Yes, improper pesticide use can potentially be dangerous, but quite often there is far more danger in letting a crop go unprotected.

Don’t forget that the U.S. has the cheapest, most abundant, and SAFEST food supply in the world.  That’s thanks to the American farmer, and thanks in part to the proper use of pesticides.