O.K., let’s buckle under and remove all pesticides from store shelves and farm fields. Isn’t this the wish of certain “green groups” who seem to be convinced that chemical companies are out to poison consumers – especially pregnant women and children?

Let’s see, that would mean allowing crop-damaging diseases, insect infestations and noxious weeds to decimate the human food supply and drive grocery prices through the roof; it would allow vector-borne illnesses caused by rats and mosquitoes, such as encephalitis and West Nile virus, and Lyme disease caused by ticks, to run rampant; and cockroaches and mold/mildew would penetrate uncontrollably into such areas as housing, restrooms, school cafeterias and elsewhere, spreading known allergens that cause asthma and other diseases.

Let’s take it a step further: other insects and plant pests, such as poison ivy, fire ants, spiders, lice, bedbugs and termites, now effectively controlled by pesticides, would be free to wreak havoc on humans and their dwellings. And let’s don’t forget that poor Fido would be left on his own to scratch away platoons of invading fleas.

A relevant case in point focuses on Santa Cruz County supervisors who not long ago banned herbicides to control weeds along its 600 miles of roads. Overgrown weeds now block drivers’ vision, creating fire hazards and spreading to farmers’ fields. Before the moratorium, the county each year would mow 100 miles of roadway and spray another 200 with herbicides that have been proven safe both to the environment and human health. But mowing becomes more difficult without herbicides to help keep the weeds down, county public works officials say. As a result, last year county crews mowed just 45 miles of road, leaving hundreds of miles of roadway to the weeds (spraying costs $140 a mile, and mowing costs $3,000 per mile.)

Some farmers say they’ve had enough. “Nothing says that the farmers can’t spray herbicides themselves, and a few of them have indicated they would,” supervisor Tony Campos told a local newspaper.

It’s this reality that the crop protection industry lives and works within. I guess you could call it the acknowledgement and acceptance that Mother Nature has put forth an abundance of predators on our planet, all trying their best to survive – and that also includes us.

Squeeze production

So, as the world’s population grows, natural obstacles increase, and cropland diminishes to make room for more houses and businesses, scientists are hard at work coming up with ways to squeeze yet more agricultural production out of fewer and fewer farm acres – while making certain that worker and consumer safety, as well as environmental protections, are not compromised.

And it’s this last sentence that usually puts the crop protection industry in conflict with certain consumer and environmental groups, who seem to harbor a perpetual blanket of suspicion connected with anything linked to the word “pesticide.” It’s this misperception of the crop protection business that the industry has spent years in trying to dispel.

And evidence that this effort is paying off can best be realized in California, with a simple examination of the most recent pesticide use report released by the Department of Pesticide Regulation. It shows that in 2005, 194 million pounds of fumigants and pesticides were applied for all commercial uses, compared to 180 million pounds in 2004. However, half of the increase was attributed to sulfur, a natural compound used by organic and conventional growers to combat mold and mildew, and there was a large decline in several highly toxic chemicals, both in pounds applied and acres treated.

And a look back at 2003 shows a slight increase from the year before, 175 million pounds as compared to 172 million pounds in 2002. And although use climbed in 2002, usage showed a steady decline in many of the preceding years. In fact, DPR reported a 19 percent drop in 2001 pesticide use in California, which measured only 151 million pounds. DPR’s report in 2001 noted that pesticide usage in California between 1998 and 2001 dropped by roughly 30 million pounds. DPR data showed an overall decline in pounds of chemicals classified as possible carcinogens, reproductive toxins and toxic air contaminants.

In the latest DPR report delivered a couple of months ago announcing the 2005 statistics, DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam had this to say: “DPR continues to put strong emphasis on reducing pesticide risks and use whenever possible. While last year’s weather presented challenging conditions for growers, we see a growing reliance on sustainable pest management. The number of pounds applied is not as significant as the chemicals that contribute to that total,” said Warmerdam. “Increased use of less toxic materials shows that we are moving in the right direction.”

And her words speak volumes for the crop protection industry, which is striving to be a good neighbor and steward of the environment. While many who review these statistics might focus on the overall numbers, the truth is that a combination of environmental stewardship, attention to good pest management practices, and effective industry and grower education programs benefit everyone. And when products are applied safely per label, the public wins, the growers win the environment wins.