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WHAT ARE SOME IMPORTANT TERMS?

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are chemical compounds used by farmers to kill pests, including insects, rodents, unwanted plants (weeds), and fungi. There are over 1000 pesticides used around the world. 

Key facts:

  • Pesticides are used to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi, and other pests

  • Pesticides can be potentially harmful to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person was exposed

  • Some older, cheaper pesticides can remain in soil and water for years after they were originally used. Although these pesticides have been banned from agricultural use in more "developed" countries, they are still in use in many "developing" countries

  • The people who face the greatest health risks from pesticides are those who come into contact with them at work, in their home, or garden

  • Scientists still do not yet have a clear understanding of the health effects and risks of pesticides 

Types of pesticides:

Although there are many different types of pesticides, here are some of the main ones. Pesticides are grouped according to the types of pests that they kill:

  • Insecticides - insects

  • Herbicides - plants (weeds)

  • Rodenticides - rodents (rats and mice)

  • Bactericides - bacteria

  • Fungicides - fungi

  • Larvicides - larvae

Link to all types of pesticides here

They can also be grouped based on how biodegradable they are:

Biodegradable: 

  • Biodegradable pesticides are those which can be broken down by microbes and other living beings into harmless compounds.

Persistent:

  • Persistent pesticides are those which may take months or even years to fully break down.

Pesticides in organic farming:

Contrary to popular belief, pesticides are still used in organic farming. But there are many differences between pesticides used in organic farming and pesticides used in conventional farming. Mainly, and most importantly, the pesticides used in organic farming are for the large part derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is in contrast to the pesticides currently being used in conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. Although the organic standards prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides, under very specific circumstances the National Organic Program does allow the use of synthetic pesticides, but under highly controlled applications. You can find the list of synthetic substances that may be used in organic farming and non-synthetic substances that may not be used here. As a rule of thumb, always remember that even if organic pesticides may be seen as more "natural", that does not mean that they are "non-toxic". In the end, what really matters is what methods are used by the crop producers. And in that aspect, although organic and conventional farms do vary widely, organic farms are still more likely to end up relying less heavily on the use of pesticides.

The dangers of pesticides:

  • Toxic chemicals in pesticides are designed to be deliberately released into the environment. Even though each pesticide is meant to target and kill a specific pest, a very large percentage of pesticides end up reaching a destination other than their intended target. Instead, they enter the surrounding air, water, sediments, and can even end up in the food that we eat

  • Although research is still very much ongoing, pesticides have been linked to various human health problems, from more short-term impacts such as headaches and nausea to more serious and life-threatening impacts such as cancer and reproductive harm

  • The use of pesticides can also decrease general biodiversity in the soil. If there are fewer to no chemicals in the soil then that translates to higher soil quality, which allows for higher water retention, which is necessary for plants to grow

What are fertilizers?

A fertilizer is any material, natural or synthetic, that is applied to soils or to the plant tissues to supply one or more nutrients essential to the growth of plants.  

Types of fertilizers:

Inorganic fertilizers. The term inorganic fertilizers are fairly self-explanatory and refer to chemical fertilizers that contain nutrients for the growth of crops that were made by chemical means. Inorganic fertilizers are split into the following types:

Nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrogen fertilizers, as their name suggests, contain nitrogen necessary for the development of crops. Nitrogen is important because it is the main constituent of chlorophyll, which helps to maintain a balance during the process of photosynthesis. Additionally, it is also part of amino acids in plants and constitutes protein. 

Phosphorus fertilizers. The efficiency of fertilizer depends on effective phosphorus content, properties of soil, methods of fertilizing, and crop strains. Phosphorus fertilizer is beneficial for the growth of the roots of the plants. 

Organic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are fertilizers made with naturally occurring ingredients. Organic fertilizers typically contain some organic materials, as well as other acceptable additives. Organic fertilizers enrich the soil with carbonic compounds essential for plant growth. 

Advantages and disadvantages of fertilizers:

Advantage. They are easy to transport, store, and apply

Disadvantage. They can be expensive

Advantage. They can easily dissolve in the soil, therefore, they are easily absorbed by plants

Disadvantage. The ingredients in fertilizers can be toxic to the skin and respiratory system

Advantage. They have a very quick effect on crops so that you can see what works and what doesn't

Disadvantage. Excessive use or overreliance on fertilizers can damage plants and reduce soil fertility

Advantage. They can increase the crop yield if used correctly

Disadvantage. If used incorrectly, leaching can occur and the fertilizers can reach the rivers, sometimes causing eutrophication

Advantage. They are fairly predictable and reliable

Disadvantage. Long-term use can reduce microbial activity and mess with the pH of the soil

What is the importance of fertilizers?

Fertilizers can be important to plants in the following ways:

  • Fertilizers increase plants' tolerance towards pests. This is beneficial because it can reduce reliance on pesticides, which produces healthier crops over time

  • Fertilizers can improve the water holding capacity of the plants, and increase root depth. 

  • The nutrients present in fertilizers can help to strengthen the stalks and straws of plants. 

  • The nutrients present in fertilizers aid in the faster development of roots and the formation of seeds in the plants

  • Nitrogen present in the fertilizers enhances the growth of the plants, which can be characterized by the green color of the plants

What are GMOs?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are living beings (plants, bacteria, and fungi) whose genetic code has been manipulated through genetic engineering, in ways that could not occur in nature or with traditional cross-breeding. 

Are GMOs safe?

At the moment, there have not been a sufficient amount of credible independent and long-term studies to verify if GMOs are safe for consumption or not. Because of this, the decision of whether to consume GMOs or is still a highly personal one, and mainly depends on your personal values, and what level of caution you think is within reason. 

Environmental impact of GMOs:

When looking at the environmental impact of GMOs, there are many things to consider. Firstly, more than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide have been engineered to be more resistant to herbicides. Because of this, producers have been able to use herbicides more frequently and in larger amounts, which has lead to an increase of almost fifteenfold in the use of toxic herbicides such as Roundup. This is bad not only because the overuse of herbicides can end up irreversibly damaging the soil, but also because it can create so-called "superweeds" which are resistant to most herbicides, requiring the use of more toxic herbicides. Lastly, it is also important to note that once GMOs are introduced into the environment it becomes near-impossible to recall them, which can have potentially devastating effects on the local wildlife. 

Are producers required to say if foods are GMO-free or not?

Although GMOs are not currently labeled in the United States, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) was published in the federal register on December 21, 2018. Basically, this act is the start of GMO labeling in the United States. It means that some - but not all - products containing GMOs will have to be labeled as such by 2022. But sadly, in its current form, certain categorical exemptions prevent this law from being able to deliver the full and meaningful protections that it could. You can learn more about the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard here.