Words matter. As a professional communicator, I spend a tremendous amount of time working with words: determining which ones make the most impact toward a goal, aligning them to the tone and tenor of an occasion, organizing them to articulate a thought with clarity.
We put a lot of stock into words, as we should. Language helps us to understand the world around us and relate to one another. It’s also true that some words have baggage – thanks to their composition and/or history. Take the word “pesticide.” At first blush, it may sound like a scary word. It has the word “pest” and suffix “cide” right there, front and center, so it must be bad, right? Combine that with the fact that the conversation around pesticides is riddled with misinformation, and “pesticides” fall short of engendering warm, fuzzy feelings.
However, for the millions of farmers across the world who rely on crop protection, including pesticides, to deliver strong crops to help feed the planet, these products do critically important work despite their reputation in some circles. Every year, as much as 40 percent of the world’s potential harvests are lost to damaging insects, weeds and plant disease. Without crop protection tools and practices, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says these losses would double. The results of that would be catastrophic.
There’s no single solution to crop protection, but pesticides are an important tool farmers can use alongside other common and effective practices, including cover crops, tilling, crop rotation and proper timing of planting.
The very real threat of losing crops means that most farmers – whether they employ organic or modern agriculture practices – use some type of pesticide to keep insects, weeds and plant diseases from destroying their crops. That may sound surprising, as there’s a common misconception that organic crops are grown without pesticides. That’s simply not true. Organic farmers must make tough decisions every day, too, including how to manage pests. And that includes the use of pesticides. To keep harvesting the food needed to feed a growing population, all farmers must protect their crops from threats in the field.
Despite their diminutive size, insects can leave behind a broad wake of destruction. An insect tinier than an apple seed spread a disease with no cure among orange crops a few years ago, leading to a $4 billion loss and another battle in the global war against food waste.
Insects aren’t the only culprit. People who enjoy gardening around their homes likely think of weeds as an unattractive nuisance, but invasive weed species play a more sinister role on farms. Weeds steal water, sunlight and nutrients from crops, harming their ability to grow strong and produce food.
Still, the idea of pesticides can make people nervous. “Aren’t those chemicals?” is a question I hear often. But we need not fear chemicals: The world around us is made up of chemicals, and the chemicals used in pesticides are heavily researched, validated and regulated. Before companies can make pesticides available to farmers, these crop protection tools must undergo comprehensive evaluations by regulatory authorities. Here in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency requires all pesticides to pass significant safety studies before they are approved. The regulatory involvement doesn’t stop there: The EPA routinely reviews registered products to ensure they continue to meet safety standards.
It’s easy to see how the myths about pesticides keep spreading. Like you, I want the best for my family. I want to feed my three kids safe and nutritious foods, developed by an agriculture system that protects our precious natural resources. Pesticides, even if they sound intimidating, make that possible. And for that, I am thankful. Without them, agriculture production will not be able to keep pace with the growing demands of society.
So what’s in a name? When you’re a communications professional in agriculture – sometimes a whole lot. But my colleagues and I are committed to championing facts over fiction, for pesticides and otherwise, when it comes to protecting the solutions that drive progress for modern agriculture and the people who are charged with helping feed the rest of us.