Core Topic Briefs: History of Pesticides

See examples of pests that changed history and early pest control. Learn about current regulations to control pests while safeguarding/monitoring the food supply and educating pesticide applicators.
Core Topic Briefs: History of Pesticides - Videos

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Since the beginning of time, people have had a few basic needs...somewhere to live...

and,.. most importantly something to eat.

Nature works in a very delicate balance, and, one of the biggest challenges we face is the battle to keep that food supply plentiful and safe. This short video discusses the struggles to overcome these challenges, including the pests that changed history, early pest control, regulations to control pests while safeguarding the food supply, monitoring the food supply and educating those who apply pesticides.

Various plants, animals, and other organisms can threaten our food supply, along with our health and comfort. When they pose a threat, we consider them to be "pests", and their impact is never taken lightly. In fact throughout our history, pests have occasionally led to significant events that have changed our world. For example, in the 14th century, Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, ravaged the population of Europe. This disease, carried by fleas in rodents, is estimated to have killed up to 60% of the continent's citizens. Untold millions of lives were lost his illness. The mid-19th century saw the effects of the Irish Potato Famine, which dramatically shaped the population in America. Massive crop losses led to the deaths of one and a half million people in Ireland, due to starvation and related disease. Another million people emigrated to North America to avoid such a fate.

At the same time, people have been hard at work, finding ways to protect food supplies, as well as human health, through various means of confronting and eliminating pests. Ancient Sumerians are believed to have been using sulfur compounds kill insects as far back as the 25th century B.C. By the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco, herbs, arsenic and other plants were being used to fight insects.

The late 19th century saw the introduction of "Bordeaux mixture", as a pest control quite by accident.

A farmer used a combination of lime and copper sulfate an attempt to keep people from eating the grapes for the vines close to the road. He also realized that those grapes had less of a problem with downy mildew, a damaging fungus common in grape vineyards. The industrial age ushered in mechanical innovations, such as sprayers which allowed, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and other pesticides to be applied in various formulations, including liquid, mist, and even granular. The 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of DDT, the first synthetic organic chemicals to be used as an insecticide.

By killing insects that carried diseases like malaria and typhus, DDT is credited with saving thousands of lives during WWII. DDT and other chemical insecticides, for example to be discovered during this time were widely used for decades. In many circumstances, larger quantities of these chemicals were applied in an attempt to completely eradicate pests, with less concern for potential environmental impact.

One of the first, most widely known view of the potential ecological damage caused by pesticides was a 1962 book "Silent spring" by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist. While her studies were challenged by chemists, some scientists, and others, her conclusions led to sweeping changes in the way and amounts that chemical pesticides are applied. Silent Spring inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the Environment Protection Agency in 1970.

The Environmental Protection Agency was established for the purpose of developing a standardized federal approach for environmental regulations, including the use of pesticides. Since its inception, the EPA strives to help maintain nature's delicate balance by encouraging the safe usage and implementation of chemical pesticides and other materials while caring for our natural surroundings. This includes requiring chemical manufacturers to evaluate and submit their findings to the EPA on their products effectiveness to control pests, while keeping users and handlers safe, and protecting the environment. Detailed pesticide labels that provide specific instructions for use and signal words to indicate product toxicity are just some of the ways that help to ensure safety when these products are used. The EPA also establishes tolerance levels that are safe acceptable measurements of pesticide residues on food crops that include additional built in safety factors. This ensures that even if residues remain on food crops it is at a level that is safe for human consumption.

In an effort to minimize pesticide usage, many growers practice Integrated Pest Management, known as IPM. IPM is a process of using multiple control methods with the goal of managing pests to an acceptable level instead of eliminating them. This integrated approach involves scouting to determine pest populations and understanding and managing ecological principles and life cycles to control pests. Practices can include planting pest resistant varieties, using mechanical methods for control, and using beneficial predators or parasites.

Once the food reaches the market, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (or USDA) regularly take samples of both domestic and imported food and analyze the food to enforce these established tolerance levels for pesticide residues. This "market basket" program has been implemented to ensure that the food you eat is as safe as it can be.

The knowledge and wisdom that history brings, along with certification and continuing education of those who might handle regulated pesticides, helps to ensure that good science is put into practice. Courses such as those offered by the penn State Pesticide Education Program, Penn State Extension, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture help prepare pesticide users and applicators for the challenges they face to find the delicate balance between controlling pests while protecting themselves and the environment from potential pesticide exposure. Practices to control pests have come a long way since the early days. With 9 billion people to feed by the year 2025, controlling pest when producing a safe and plentiful food supply, while at the same time protecting human health and the environment, is more critical than ever.

Combining all potential control methods, including the safe and effective use of pesticides, is the cornerstone of meeting that goal.

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