By Magpie Group
The word “pesticides” describes the different types of pest control products available to Canadians. Pests are diseases, weeds, rodents or insects detrimental to human, animal or plant health and well-being.
Although pesticides are often associated with farming, they are also a part of our lives in many other ways. At home, they include the backyard/garden products for controlling weeds or insects, the chemicals you put in your pool or hot tub to prevent the growth of bacteria, or the tick-and-flea collar you put on your pet. In addition, pesticides are used in urban settings like public parks, golf courses and sports fields and even for protecting building materials in our houses from insects like termites or carpenter ants.
Pesticides are vital to agriculture too
Farmers use them to safeguard crops against weeds, insects and disease – as well as for their animals’ health and welfare.
What are the different types of pesticides?
- Herbicides control unwanted plants (weeds) that compete with crops and natural habitats for nutrients, space, water and sunlight.
- Insecticides control insects that eat crops or transmit diseases, like grasshoppers that attack wheat, and biting flies, lice or mosquitoes that can cause severe discomfort for animals.
- Fungicides protect plants from fungi that can spread from plant to plant and destroy crops. An example is the fungus that caused the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the 1800s.
- Rodenticides kill rodents such as mice and rats that can carry disease.
Do all farmers use pesticides?
The answer is yes – in one form or another. All farmers need pesticides to grow crops sustainably, prevent crop damage and ensure they get the best quality and highest quantity yields possible. Although prevention is the first line of defence, both organic and conventional farmers use pesticides.
Pesticides used on organic farms must be approved by the farmers’ organic certifying agency, as well as Health Canada. They are subject to the same regulatory requirements as synthetic products. Organic pesticides consist of minerals mined from the ground or substances that come from natural sources. An example is pyrethrin, a natural insecticide which can be extracted from chrysanthemums. Many organic pesticides include ingredients such as soaps, lime-sulfur, fermented vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Although they are organic, some conventional farmers use them too.
Synthetic pesticides, used by most conventional farmers, are generally created from basic elements through chemical reactions. While some synthetic pesticides are also found in nature, most are not. An example of a pesticide found in nature that can be produced synthetically is glufosinate (a herbicide originally derived from microbes). Pyrethrin (mentioned above) is another example. Each type of pesticide is developed to target a certain pest or group/type of pest. For example, broadleaf herbicides only kill weeds with broad leaves (e.g., sowthistle, Canada thistle and dandelion) and not grassy weeds (e.g., brome grass, foxtail and other grasses).
Regardless of whether they are made from naturally occurring chemicals or synthetic ones, both types have the same purpose, which is to improve food production.
How are pesticides regulated?
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada regulates each pesticide sold in Canada, whether it’s intended for a farm, a forest, or your backyard. No pesticide can be sold in Canada unless it is registered with PMRA, and all pesticides have rules for handling, application and storage.
It generally takes more than 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars for a new pesticide to be approved and brought to market for sale in Canada.2
Steps taken in the approval process include:
Screening (4-5 years) – Chemicals are screened to find the right one for the identified problem by testing them to ensure they do what they’re supposed to do without harming non-target plants and beneficial insects such as bees.
Research (3-4 years) – Products are tested in greenhouses and on small plots in controlled field environments to study their effectiveness and potential negative effects on non-target plants, humans, animals and the environment.
Evaluation (2-4 years) – Data from research is submitted to Health Canada for review by multiple scientists who work on your behalf to verify the pesticide does not negatively affect human health or the environment and serves a useful purpose. Once it passes this scrutiny, an approved pesticide is granted registration.
Pesticides are evolving – and so is how farmers are using them.
All pesticides are reviewed regularly by the most advanced scientific systems and applying the most up-to-date knowledge. Health Canada re-evaluates every pesticide at least every 15 years or when any new information suggests further study is required.
This monitoring ensures that pesticides can be applied without affecting human health or the natural environment, and to ensure that pesticides’ chemistry is still relevant in today’s agriculture world. As new chemicals become available, older ones are either discarded or deregistered.
Significant investment in crop protection products since the 1960s has led to continued improvements in their effectiveness and efficiency. Farmers now apply much lower doses of pesticides to achieve the same results.
Over the years, farmers have improved the way they farm, which can also helped reduce pesticide usage. Some examples of improved farming practices are as follows:
- Global Positioning Systems (GPS) on tractors and equipment place seeds, fertilizers and pesticides with precision and eliminates overlap that doubled application in parts of the field. This technology results in using less seed, fertilizer and pesticide for each crop.
- Scientists and researchers are continually developing new crop varieties that are more productive, more nutritious and more naturally resistant to diseases and insects.
- Some genetically-engineered crops contain one or more genes transferred from a naturally occurring soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis or BT) that produces proteins to kill specific insects when they feed on the crop. This reduces or eliminates the need to apply insecticides.
- Farmers are planting insecticide-treated seeds (seed treatments) that give each plant a better start by protecting them from insects during the most critical stages of growth. The plants also require less insecticide and fewer spray applications during the year. This means that not as much pesticide is used and helpful insects like bees are less likely to be exposed to the product.
And so it comes down to this: without pesticides – whether organic or synthesized – we wouldn’t be able to produce the quality or quantity of food we need to support a growing world population. Nor would it be available at an affordable price. Through ongoing research and testing, and improved farming practices, Canadians can be assured that pesticides are fulfilling the job they’re intended to do: to protect our food.
- Encouraging Responsible Use of Pesticides: Pesticide Applicator Licence
- GPS Helps Farmers use Less Pesticides
- Pesticides and Paperwork
- Bees and Neonics: The Whole Story