The Evolution of Pesticides


It’s obvious when you look at the grocery store produce section that times are changing. The word “organic” is now seen on a variety of produce products. These recent changes directly reflect how produce has been grown in terms of pesticides. Due to a collaboration of federal and state agencies teaming up with farmers and nonprofit organizations, the tables are turning on what is now used on crops. Let’s take a look at the way things were, and more importantly, where they are going:


Many people remember hearing about DDT. This pesticide single-handedly brought the bald eagle population, among many other species, to its knees and almost to extinction. Though DDT was banned in 1972 due to its harmful nature, it was a widely used synthetic pesticide none-the-less. Though it was a very effective pesticide, it became clear that the environment and human welfare was in danger from its widespread use.

DDT sprayed on Long Island beaches in 1945. - Advisory Committe on Pesticides,

DDT sprayed on Long Island beaches in 1945. Photo: Advisory Committee on Pesticides,

The removal of DDT didn’t lead to the end of pesticide use. In fact, the U.S. EPA reported that in 1998 alone, the U.S. used 724 million pounds of pesticide (this encompasses herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and nematicides) for agricultural use. This equated to about $11 billion in sales in the U.S. of pesticides during 1999.

In terms of recycling, the implications of disposing of pesticides by pouring the residue on the ground, into bodies of water or sewers were often not taken into consideration. Thankfully, we’ve seen a switch over the past years that has begun to change the way agriculture takes care of business.


If we get back to the grocery store scenario, you’ll notice that there is an organic option for just about anything. Variety doesn’t stop there. Many in the agriculture industry are exploring pest control options that exclude chemical assistance altogether. For example, farmers are learning to use a method called IPM (Integrated Pest Management).

About IPM

IPM considers the natural life cycles of pests and crops and figures out the best way to grow crops with the least amount of damage done to humans or the environment. By putting the patterns in sync, IPM aims to reduce the amount of pesticides that need to be applied to crops for a successful harvest.


If we look at the basic structures of pesticides, we can also see a wave of change in that arena. The federal government successfully phased out several toxic pesticides, and continues to do so today. By doing this, they require chemical companies to develop new and innovative ideas for fighting pests.

For example, now that lindane, an insecticide used to control the balsam wooly adelgid that feeds off of Fraser fir’s, has been phased out, scientists have developed a pyrethroid compound called bifenthrin that is shown to be 10 times less toxic for rats. It also requires less application to be effective. By forcing the hand of science to come up with more environmentally safe pesticides, the hope is that less damage will be done to wildlife and humans.


Another wave of the future which is extremely promising is the use of bio-pesticides. This employs the use of naturally occurring repellent, such as pheromones, that can disrupt insects’ reproductive cycles. By creating products that are naturally occurring, the negative environmental impact is decreased.

Recycling and Disposal

When we look back at the recycling aspect of pesticides, you will also notice a significant change. While pesticides themselves are not recyclable, there are huge steps farmers and homeowners are taking in order to ensure proper disposal of pesticide containers and excess waste.

One thing to consider is the use of reusable containers. Since simply rinsing the container and pouring the residue on the ground is dangerous, people are turning more and more to reusable containers, especially farmers, who are learning that the best way to go is to utilize these containers. In addition to this, many pesticide manufacturers are taking strides to encourage consumers to return containers to specific locations for proper disposal. To find a proper location in your area, check out Earth911’s recycling search.


In addition to what we have seen so far, there is also change occurring with application processes. The jist is: Less is more when it comes to protecting the environment. By farmers using less, they are able to cut costs and reduce the amount of excess pesticide that could make its way into the water supply.

While science is still working to make safer chemicals to treat our crops, they are making leaps from where things were just 30 years ago.

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