I know you’ve seen the photographs. There is a man all suited up in a white, plastic garment that goes from head to toe. His face is covered and he has a gas mask on. He is carrying some kind of creepy hose that is spraying out some odd looking substance onto a field full of fresh, ripe crops. Of course, if the farmer just doused his crops with something so harmful he had to wear a hazmat suit, how can that possibly be safe for us to eat?!
Fortunately, that popular stock image is really nothing more than a fantasy. Growing up on my family farm, I assure you that no one in my family has ever donned a hazmat suit or gas mask when going into the field (or, ever actually…). I can also assure that, despite the popular misconception, farmers definitely do not douse their crops in pesticides.
For starters, the application of pesticides is regulated by both state and local governments. On the federal level, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, also known as FIFRA, is the legislation that allows the EPA to oversee every single pesticide being used in the country. Even if farmers wanted to douse their crops in pesticides, they would still have to comply with application rates set by the EPA, because not doing so is a violation of federal law. Furthermore, restricted use pesticides can only be sold to or applied by a certified applicator.
But even if certain pesticides are available for use on our crops, that doesn’t necessarily mean we use them.
Take the problem of aphids in soybeans. This pest is relatively new to the United States, with the first documented reports starting in 2000, and likely originated from Japan. Soybean aphids damage the plants by extracting sap. However, although the pests can be managed with insecticides, farmers don’t just whip out their sprayers as soon as aphids are detected in a field. Rather, we wait until the number of aphids in the field reaches a particular number. That’s because the damage being caused by the aphids isn’t worth the cost and time it takes to spray for them.
Pesticides are also costly, so if we can avoid using them we will. That’s one of the reasons we are particularly interested in genetically engineered crops. Since we started growing corn that has been genetically engineered with the Bt trait, we have not used any insecticide on our corn. The Bt trait creates a protein that cannot be digested by certain types of worms, but it is easily digested by humans. (If you’re interested, it is the same concept as why you can safely eat chocolate but your dog cannot.)
While the common perception might be that farmers are eager to use pesticides whenever possible with as much as possible, that just isn’t the case. In reality, we are proud to grow food that is safe for your family and ours. We also want to make sure we protect and preserve our farms for generations to come.