Pesticides play a helpful role in protecting food, preventing diseases

There’s been much discussion recently about pesticide use in agriculture. Unfortunately, it’s often associated with words like “poison” and “toxic,” and that’s the end of the story. That story, however, is missing some important chapters.

As a farmer, I regard pesticides as a vital tool that – when used properly – plays a hugely beneficial role in protecting our food and our health. Some might view my position as outrageous, but please consider a few facts:

* Even with the use of pesticides, farmers still lose more than one-third of their crops to pests, weeds and diseases. Without pesticides, the world’s food supply would shrink considerably – some experts believe we could lose as much as 80 percent of our crops to pests, which in turn would likely lead to food shortages and higher prices.

* Pesticides are used to prevent the spread of diseases like malaria by working to eliminate the pests that carry them, in this case, mosquitoes. Some people are allergic to cockroaches and use pesticides to protect themselves from this common insect.

* Pesticides are used to inhibit the advance of invasive species in environmentally significant areas.

* Pesticides are regularly used by farmers of conventional, biotech and organic crops, as well as millions of businesses and individuals who want to control weeds, rodents, termites and other bugs in their gardens, homes, offices, stores, hotels, golf courses, landscaping, parks and roadways, to name a few.

For those who are most concerned about pesticides, it might seem like the simple solution would be to ban pesticides. Doing so, however, would have consequences we may not like. Can you imagine rats running through the store, centipedes and termites infesting your home, weeds overtaking your garden, people getting sick from malaria and other diseases, and vegetables in the market with visible insect damage selling at double today’s prices?

I fully understand concerns about pesticides, and agree that it’s important to use them wisely. The key, however, is not to get rid of them but to make sure we understand the facts and use pesticides and other chemicals responsibly so we can maximize safety and reap the benefits.

Last year, more than 34,000 people died in traffic accidents in the U.S. Does this mean the best solution to save lives is an outright ban on all cars and trucks? I think most people would say no. The better approach is to keep our cars but make sure drivers have the skills and education to be able to use their vehicles responsibly and safely.

Likewise, the law requires pesticide applicators to be trained and certified to show that they have the right skills and knowledge and understand their legal obligations before they’re allowed to apply certain classes of pesticides. This is true for farm operations as well as many other pesticide users.

The Maui County Farm Bureau encourages responsible farming and supports training classes to help ensure farmers operate in compliance with federal and state laws. The bureau also embraces continued efforts by the greater agricultural industry to seek alternative methods and technologies to help farmers address problems with weeds and insects.

For farmers, purchasing pesticides and other agricultural supplies can be very costly and, with margins so thin, farmers do not like to waste or use excessive amounts of anything. Regardless of how large or how small your farm is, there’s no incentive to use any more pesticide than absolutely necessary. It’s in agriculture’s best interest to use this tool properly and judiciously.

At the recent Maui Fair, many people submitted their beautiful fruits and vegetables for the annual horticulture exhibit. We also heard a number of horror stories from folks who lost their produce to bugs and diseases. In fact, two of the pumpkins at the fair rotted away into a stinky mess because of insect damage. Cleaning it up wasn’t exactly fun, but it was a good reminder that there’s a positive side to the pesticide story.

* Warren Watanabe is the executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau. He lives in Kula.