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Post: “Pesticides are bad?!?!”… but what exactly is a pesticide?

Jacqui Meyer - TIPWG Secretariat

Oh, if I had a Rand for every time I heard someone making a blanket statement about pesticides! Like the woman who inspired this article, she stood in the garden section of a well known hardware store and chastised her husband for picking up an insecticide, “we can’t use pesticides they are full of chemicals that are bad!”. Ironically, she had a weed killer in her trolley already.

Sadly she, like a lot of people, simply do not have a clue what exactly a pesticide is, what they are used for and how to assess the individual risks associated with each one. They’ve bought into the anti-pesticide hype that pesticides are bad, chemicals are man-made and therefore in this context bad and we should all be living a happy “organic” lifestyle.

Now, I am not anti-organic, but I am just anti- those who share fiction as if it were fact, I am anti-misinformation. What I have been noticing recently is that there appears to be a lot of confusion when it comes to people understanding what a pesticide is and this is not just directed at the folk purchasing goods in the hardware store.

The problem starts with understanding what a pest is

Ironically, the misunderstanding that surrounds the term pesticide, like the reason for its use, starts with understanding what a pest is! People simply do not understand what the term entails.

According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) a pesticide is defined as “… any substance, or mixture of substances of chemical or biological ingredients intended for repelling, destroying or controlling any pest, or regulating plant growth” where a pest is defined as “… any species, strain or biotype of plant, animal or pathogenic agent injurious to plants and plant products, materials or environments and includes vectors of parasites or pathogens of human and animal disease and animals causing public health nuisance.”

In simple terms, a pest is an unwanted organism, indigenous or exotic, which ‘defeats’ or interferes with the purpose of the operation, which means weeds and fungi are as much pests, as Leptocybe, cut-worm, a mosquito or even a rat. And pesticides, therefore, are the substances used to control these, be it an herbicide, fungicide, insecticide or rodenticide (typically the most common used in the plantation forestry and nursery industry). Note, I also use the word “control” and not kill. Pesticides are often used to kill their target but can also include substances which suppress or repel the intended pest.

The confusion surrounding pest/pesticide is not confined to the folk in the hardware store or the masses on social media but often occurs within our industry too! I have had long conversations with individuals, who will remain nameless, that would find it challenging to classify an elephant as a pest despite them causing chaos in a newly planted compartment. Equally, there are those who have regularly discussed herbicides and pesticides as if they were two separate entities, rather than recognizing a herbicide as a pesticide.

Then there is the “chemical” or “pesticide” debate – which is made even more complicated with the revelation (for some) that chemicals are not only man-made!

A chemical, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a substance obtained by a chemical process or producing a chemical effect“. It can therefore be man-made or natural. That’s right, there are natural chemicals all around us and even within us which help our bodies function.

So, while all pesticides are chemical compounds, be it synthesized in the laboratory or sourced from nature, not all chemicals are pesticides. Furthermore, just because it is synthesized in a laboratory does not make a pesticide any more or less dangerous than one sourced from nature. There are many naturally occurring substances that are far more detrimental to the environment and human health than any lab-based synthesized product. (And one day we will get Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, CropLife SA, to record a YouTube video on this.)

A lot of the confusion around pesticides is a result of poor communication and a misunderstanding of the definitions, using seemingly interchangeable terms that are in fact significantly different. Added to this, South African legislation refers to pesticides as agro-chemicals, although this can be used interchangeably with the term pesticides.

What is key is to remember:

  1. Chemical and pesticide are terms which are not interchangeable.
  2. A herbicide is a pesticide.
  3. A natural substance that is obtained by a chemical process or producing a chemical effect is as much a chemical as one synthesized in a laboratory.
  4. That the term pest and therefore the term pesticide is as applicable to a weed or fungi, as it is to an insect or rat.
  5. A pest can be an indigenous or exotic organism and needs to be referred to in terms of the operation or aim of the operation.

By:
Jacqui Meyer

TIPWG SecretariatSource:

FSA Magazine – Forestry in Focus

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“Pesticides are bad?!?!”… but what exactly is a pesticide?

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