There is no doubt the use of pesticides is a controversial topic and even, sometimes, an emotive one. It is also one that divides opinions especially amongst the general public and even in some scientific circles.
This has been evident in recent weeks and days as the issue has again been in the headlines. From their impact on honey bees (and other pollinator species) to a steep decline in the number of UK butterflies, there is, again, a growing call for a total ban on pesticides from environmental groups.
But with such stories comes misconceptions, misinformation and misreporting. This isn't always done on purpose as the issue of pesticides is as complex as it is divisive. But did you know without pesticides it has been estimated that global food production could fall by as much as 35-40%, increasing the cost of food and threatening food security?
Pesticides have an important role to play in ensuring that there is enough safe and healthy food for the world's population. The number of people in the world is growing with numbers expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. To meet such a heavy demand, agriculture and food systems need to adapt, this includes combatting the threat of climate change and other food production pressures. To do this crop production needs to become more resilient, productive and sustainable and the use of pesticides is imperative to that goal. Their continued use is also one of the only ways farmers can ensure the wellbeing of local ecosystems and rural populations.
This year's World Food Day theme is 'Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too' and this is another area pesticides need to play a role. Growing food in a sustainable way means adopting practices that produce more with less and use natural resources wisely - the use of pesticides is fundamental for these practices as their usage reduces food losses and means better harvesting. As well as their primary use, pesticides also reduce the labour, fuel and machinery required for crop protection activities which also benefits the environment.
Therefore a total ban isn't a realistic goal, instead a more pragmatic approach is in order. This includes continuing to heavily regulate the industry, having robust checks on the manufacturers and improving transparency whilst sharing knowledge on the different pesticides available, using tools such as the Pesticides Properties DataBase (PPDB).
The PPDB is a comprehensive database of pesticide chemical identity, physicochemical, human health and ecotoxicological data. It has been developed by the Agriculture & Environment Research Unit (AERU) at the University of Hertfordshire.
Using tools such as the PPDB empowers regulatory bodies and the general public as it increases the pressure on pesticide manufactures to be more transparent. Having an independent and robust regulatory system in place is the only way to combat the issues surrounding pesticides.
Regulation, or the perceived lack thereof, is one of the biggest misconceptions around the use of pesticides. Within the European Union (EU) it is one of the most scrutinized and heavily policed industries on the continent. This is because evidence-based risk assessment is fundamental to protecting human health and ecosystems from the possible adverse effects of pesticide exposure. Pesticide use does involve potential risks to human health and some, by their very nature, may be hazardous to non-target and beneficial insects. However, their use is often still possible if they are applied in a manner that prevents exposure or are at concentrations which do not generate harmful effects.
In recent years there have been considerable scientific advances in the way in which regulatory pesticide risk assessments are conducted which means they are safer than ever. These advances include the recent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) guidance for undertaking risk assessments for honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees following rising concerns over the global decline in pollinator populations.
Of course, there are always risks associated with using such chemicals, but the answer is to heavily regulate the industry and increase transparency, not to ban their use. The scientific evidence time and again demonstrates the benefits for using pesticides far outweighs the risks.
*Professor Kathleen Lewis, Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Hertfordshire's Department of Human and Environmental Sciences (HES) and Research Leader for the Agriculture and Environment Research Unit (AERU).