«Pesticides are a technology that support civilization»
Synthetic pesticides enabled the transition at the end of the 19th century from an era of periodic famines to an age of food security. For this reason, it is clear to the University of Göttingen’s Professor Andreas von Tiedemann that pesticides are a cornerstone of modern society.
Friday, January 15, 2021
Bordeaux mixture, a combination of copper sulphate and quicklime, was first used to fight downy mildew in France in 1885. This was the first use of a chemical pesticide and represented a turning point in agriculture. From now on, it was possible to actively combat harmful organisms and plant diseases.
Unprecedented increase in productivity
Improvements to plant varieties, mineral fertilizer, new cultivation and harvesting techniques and chemical pesticides served as the basis for the unprecedented increase in agricultural productivity in the 20th century. Since the 1950s, harvests of corn have quadrupled, harvests of rice have tripled and harvests of soy and wheat have doubled (per unit area). This has made it possible to feed a growing world population using almost the same amount of cultivation area. There were around 2.7 billion people on Earth at the beginning of the 1950s. There are now more than 7.5 billion. More than 60 percent of people now live in cities and work in the second or third sector. Productive agriculture, with its efficient use of resources, thus also enabled industrialization and the subsequent service society.
While pesticides do not increase yields directly, they play a central role in the maintenance of crops. Around two-thirds of the most important crops would be lost without pesticides. With pesticides, only around a third are lost. Pesticides reduce harvest fluctuations from year and make an essential contribution to food security. They also increase the efficiency of how resources such as water, nutrients, energy and land are used.
Pesticides secure a basic need
Our supply of fruit would also fluctuate sharply without pesticides. In addition, poorer populations would no longer be able to enjoy fruits and vegetables regularly. For example, potatoes would no longer be available in years with poor climate conditions. Wine, beer and coffee would be almost completely unavailable. Citrus fruits and bananas would be difficult to produce.
Access to food is a basic need and, according to the United Nations, a human right. Pesticides contribute to food security by ensuring yields. For von Tiedemann, one thing is clear: «Modern pesticides are a technology that secure a basic human need and thus support civilization, comparable to medicine and technologies for mobility, energy and communication.»
Pesticides are fundamental for public health
In contrast to the unscientific assertions made in the press and by politicians, pesticides – like vaccines, antibiotics and water treatment – are essential tools that have provided us with a better quality of life, food security and an unprecedented increase in life expectancy of 30 years. This is the conclusion that S. Eliza Dunn comes to in her article, which can be accessed here.
The media is full of stories about Swiss producers of plant protection products exporting pesticides that are banned in Switzerland. Weak regulations in importing countries would be deliberately exploited. However, this does not correspond to the facts. When exporting plant protection products, Swiss manufacturers adhere to strict international standards. In addition, there are certain products for which an approval in Switzerland does not make sense.
The health of our crops cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary: in our mobile world, pests and plant diseases are spreading like wildfire. Climate change acts as an accelerant. When pests migrate and new plant diseases establish themselves in our latitudes, they can become a threat to native species. The International Plant Health Day on 12 May is a reminder of this. And the day shows: to ensure plant health in the future, research and innovation are needed above all.
In Switzerland, a growing number of pesticides are being banned by the authorities. At the same time, there are almost no new ones entering the market. The regulatory authorities are severely overstretched. Things cannot go on like this. Every product that disappears from the market increases the risk of pests developing resistance and of crops failing.