Use of Pesticides: Benefits and Problems Associated with Pesticides

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  • 0:06 Use of Pesticides
  • 1:20 Benefits
  • 2:45 Problems
  • 6:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

Pesticides are used worldwide to manage agricultural pests. They kill and repel unwanted pests, but also cause many human deaths each year. This lesson explores the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture and compares the benefits and problems associated with these helpful but dangerous chemicals.

Use of Pesticides

What do you think is the main goal of agriculture? Agriculture was developed to produce crops and livestock for human consumption. As the human population increases, the amount of food produced is very important. Unfortunately, there are other organisms out there that want to consume the crops that are meant for humans. It is estimated that nearly 37% of all crops produced in the United States each year are destroyed by agricultural pests, which results in an economic loss of around $122 billion a year.

Due to this high loss in food production, pesticides are often used to try to combat the problem. Pesticides are chemicals that kill or manage the population of pests. There are many different types of pesticides on the market today, but the most common are herbicides and insecticides, which kill or manage unwanted plants and insects. The damage caused by agricultural pests is a global problem, and over the past half-century, the amount of pesticides used has increased fourfold. Over the years, the widespread use of pesticides has had several benefits and also caused many problems.

Benefits of Pesticides

The benefits of pesticides include increased food production, increased profits for farmers and the prevention of diseases. Although pests consume or harm a large portion of agricultural crops, without the use of pesticides, it is likely that they would consume a higher percentage.

Due to the use of pesticides, it is possible to combat pests and produce larger quantities of food. By producing more crops, farmers are also able to increase profits by having more produce to sell. Pesticides also increase farm profits by helping the farmer save money on labor costs. Using pesticides reduces the amount of time required to manually remove weeds and pests from fields.

In addition to saving crops and livestock, pesticides have also had direct benefits to human health. It is estimated that since 1945, the use of pesticides has prevented the deaths of around seven million people by killing pests that carry or transmit diseases. Malaria, which is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, is one of the most commonly known and deadly diseases that has decreased in prevalence due to the use of pesticides. Other diseases that were minimized due to the use of pesticides include the bubonic plague, which is carried by rat fleas, and typhus, which is transmitted by both fleas and body lice.

Problems Associated with Pesticides

Although there are benefits to the use of pesticides, there have also been many problems associated with their use. When pesticides are used, they do not always stay in the location where they are applied. They are mobile in the environment and often move through water, air and soil. The problem with pesticide mobility is that when they travel, the pesticides come in contact with other organisms and can cause harm.

Pesticides have also been shown to disrupt the balance of an ecosystem. In many situations, when a pesticide is used, it also kills non-pest organisms. This can drastically alter the natural balance of the ecosystem. By removing non-pest organisms, the environment can be changed to favor the pest. In addition to causing harm to wildlife, pesticides that travel from their original location are known to cause harm to humans. Human exposure to pesticides has caused poisonings, the development of cancer and the deaths of between 20,000 and 40,000 people worldwide each year.

Another major problem associated with pesticide use is bioaccumulation and biological magnification. Bioaccumulation is when a substance builds up in the body because the body does not have the proper mechanisms to remove it. Many synthetic pesticides are not able to be broken down. Once they enter the body of an organism, they are permanently stored in the body tissue.

The pesticides that accumulate in an organism's body can cause harm to the organism or can be passed on to a predator. Due to the fact that the pesticides are integrated into the tissue of an organism, when it is consumed by a predator, the pesticides are transferred. As the predator consumes more exposed individuals, the concentration of pesticides in their own body will increase.

Organisms that are higher in the food chain will have increased concentrations of pesticides because they consumed many lower level organisms and received the pesticides stored in those organisms. Biological magnification, also known as biomagnification, is the term used to describe when chemicals, in this case pesticides, increase in concentration with each level of the food chain. A famous example of biomagnification is with the pesticide known as DDT.

Starting in the 1950s, this pesticide was used to kill mosquitoes and sprayed on crops to kill pests. DDT got into the water supply and was integrated into the bodies of zooplankton, which were then consumed by small fish and then larger fish. Eventually, the larger fish were eaten by predatory birds, and due to the biomagnification of the pesticide, the birds were killed by the large concentration of pesticides that accumulated in their bodies. This led to the near extinction of several predatory birds, including the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.

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