GM: Alternative to pesticides

Some pesticides are, frankly, frightening. As a DoD certified Pest Controller, I was taught the history, usage, and dangers of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, etc. so I say this with some authority. Our instructors would joke about “methyl-ethyl-death”, referring especially to fumigants that had been widely used on food crops in decades past.
Pesticides frequent news headlines, including the recent “Handling Pesticides Associated With Greater Asthma Risk In Farm Women“. Research shows time and again how dangerous some of the chemicals can be, especially to children. In May, researchers at Indiana U. showed correlation between high pesticide runoff, premature births, and low test scores in children.
With the huge amounts of evidence that many pesticides are dangerous to the environment and to humans, why are they still used? Conventional agriculture, for better or for worse, relies heavily on chemicals to achieve high yields. Herbicides are used to eliminate plants that might compete with crops for resources. Fungi, mites, bacteria, nematodes, viruses, a multitude of insects – an infestation of any of these can cause decreased yields and possibly sickness in humans.
How can we protect our crops and the environment and our health?
Integrated pest management (IPM) is the best way to reduce pesticide use. This method involves watching the crop closely and applying a variety of pest control methods, using pesticides as a last resort. It is widely used because it saves on pesticide costs. Unfortunately, some pesticides aren’t used as a treatment, but as a preventative – such as pre-emergent herbicides sprayed on a field even before planting.
Organic agriculture is one answer, but still allows the use of many pesticides. Just because a pesticide is derived from a natural source doesn’t mean it’s non-toxic or safe for the environment. Many organic insecticides are broad spectrum, meaning that they kill non-target insects like bees. Some organic methods are already used in conventional agriculture, while others are not feasible for large scale farming or are not sustainable, such as flaming of weeds.
Genetic engineering, in combination with IPM, is the best way that we have today to reduce total pesticide use. Many food plant varieties have natural resistance to various pests, but are not suitable for large scale farming for various reasons (low yield, poor agronomic traits, etc). Traditional plant breeding can take decades to get the right combination of traits together, and can’t combine traits from different species.
Genetic engineering can quickly insert desired resistance genes into a superior variety. If plants are given natural resistance to infections caused by viruses, bacteria, and nematodes – then treatment with chemicals will not be necessary. Insect resistance can be conferred with a variety of “toxins” that only affect insects. Only insects that eat the plant are affected. BT is a great example – one that has been successful in reducing insecticide use (especially in cotton). Other compounds similar to BT are being developed and tested, with the goal of rotation so insects don’t become immune. Reducing the amount of herbicide needed is not as simple, but genetic engineering has changed the type of herbicide used. Round-Up, although it isn’t perfect, is relatively safe for humans and the environment when compared to other herbicides.
This type of genetic engineering does benefit the farmer and the seed companies – but it benefits consumers as well. Removing pesticides from farming would prevent health problems in humans and result in a better product.


  1. I really appreciate posts such as this one, and in part because I get the impression that opposition to GMO is reactionary. I grew up in the Red River Valley in Minnesota which up until the 1980’s was where a great deal of the world’s wheat was grown. Now it is hard to find wheat in the fields because of a peculiar mold that attacks wheat. I would venture to guess that the mold was enabled by of over-fertilization and overuse of herbicides used to increase yields.

    I favor research into GMO because of the reasons you cite here, and because of the effect that other agricultural methods have had on my home range. I don’t get the Greenpeace stance on this issue.

    Do you think it is a reflexive fear of “frankensteinian” creations through genetic research?

  2. The fear of genetic engineering is definitely reflexive. I think we can blame poor science education, and even scientists themselves for not properly explaining the concepts needed to understand GE. I imagine that GE is rather scary to someone who doesn’t understand it, especially when the media and organizations like Greenpeace daemonize it daily. Food packaging that says things like “certified GMO free” probably doesn’t help either – because it implies that GMOs are unhealthy.

    I think that we will see all sorts of new GMOs that benefit consumers, farmers, and the environment – regardless of the fears. Sadly, the benefits will take longer to get to us, because of all the hoops that scientists need to jump through.

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