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Why do farmers use pesticides?

pests

It’s an unavoidable problem if you’re an Iowa homeowner, gardener or farmer: Pests and weeds will attack your favorite plants or invade your house and yard.

Farmers need pesticides to grow safe, healthy food. Without pesticides, farmers would lose a significant portion of their food crops, which leads to food waste and rising costs at the grocery store.

“Pesticides are essential for successful food production,” says Dr. Ruth MacDonald, a food scientist and interim senior associate dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Pests damage plants, causing them to be stunted and susceptible to diseases, and can reduce the quality and quantity of the food being grown,” she explains.

Even an “organic” food label doesn’t mean pesticide-free, MacDonald says. Organic farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides, but they can use a variety of natural pesticides, as allowed under the federal organic standards program.

“Conventional farmers utilize a wide range of techniques ..., including genetically modified seeds, no-till and integrated pest management, that reduce the amount of pesticides needed,” MacDonald says.

All pesticides must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are rigorously tested to prove their safety to human health and the environment. 

“There has been significant research done to identify pesticides that target insects without harming people or the environment,” MacDonald says.

In addition, farmers follow strict rules about how much and which pesticides they can use on selected crops, she adds.

Withdrawal restrictions also ensure pesticides aren’t applied immediately before harvest, which minimizes the risk of carryover to the food supply.

It is a violation of federal law to use a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its label directions, MacDonald notes.

Here in Iowa, farmers and their employees must be certified pest applicators to use pesticides. Education and testing on the safe use of pesticides is administered to all licensed pesticide applicators by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) in conjunction with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The IDAL’s Pesticide Bureau is also responsible for responding to complaints and investigating potential misuse of pesticides. 

For more information about pesticides and food safety, visit the Best Food Facts website here.

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