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Even if you’re new to crop farming, you’ve likely heard about pesticides. Pesticides, often stigmatized outside the agricultural community, have garnered a bad reputation for various reasons, including their impact on bees, potential carcinogenic effects, and other negative associations.

Despite the widespread awareness of pesticides, many people lack a comprehensive understanding of what pesticides are and how they function. While some may grasp some of the adverse effects, they often fail to grasp the full scope of the issue. In this article, we will delve into the mechanics of insecticides and herbicides, explore the hazards associated with pesticides, examine the safety of natural pest-control methods and discuss sustainable methods for controlling insect and weed populations.

Pesticides 101

When people think of pesticides, they typically envision chemicals designed to combat pests. However, a pesticide is any substance employed to eliminate, deter, or manage plant or animal life that poses a threat to agricultural production.

This category includes insecticides, fungicides, algaecides, antimicrobials and rodenticides. Pesticides are primarily used in agriculture for two crucial purposes: increasing crop yields and protecting crops from pests and diseases that could otherwise devastate them. The most prevalent types of pesticides are insecticides, designed to repel and kill insects, and herbicides, intended for the control and elimination of weeds and other undesirable vegetation.


Insects are among the most pervasive agricultural pests, capable of causing extensive damage to entire crop fields if left unchecked. Some insects consume crops, leading to significant losses, while others spread harmful plant diseases. It is essential to note that not all insects are harmful; for example, bees play a vital role in pollination, a process essential for fruit and seed production. Therefore, it is crucial to identify the insects in proximity to your crops to ensure they are, indeed, harmful before attempting to eliminate them.

Spraying pesticide on some crops
Not all insects are bad for your crops, so evaluate what types of pests you have before you decide to spray pesticides on them.

How Insecticides Work

Insecticides come in various forms and exert diverse effects, such as sprays, dusts, gels and baits. They also present varying levels of risk to other animals, the environment, and people. Some insecticides repel insects rather than outright killing them. Examples of chemical insecticides include organophosphates, carbamates, and chlorinated hydrocarbons, which disrupt insects’ nervous systems, leading to symptoms like hyperactivity, tremors, convulsions and paralysis.

Pyrethroids, another category of insecticides, mimic natural chemicals, affecting potassium and sodium levels in insects to interfere with their nervous systems. They replicate the effects of chrysanthemum seeds, which can naturally repel insects. Insect growth regulators specifically target young insects, inducing premature molting or form changes, leading to the death of the insect. These are considered among the safest chemical insecticides for non-target populations, as humans and non-insect wildlife do not undergo the same developmental changes.

The next category we’ll examine is herbicides.


In simple terms, herbicides are designed to eliminate and prevent weed growth. Weeds, defined as unwanted plants that can compete with crop growth, are especially problematic due to their prolific seed production, rapid growth and resilience in challenging conditions. Some weeds can produce more than 100,000 seeds per plant, making them a significant threat to crop yield. Farmers favor herbicides to combat these issues, as prevention is usually easier than attempting to eradicate weeds after they’ve proliferated.

How Herbicides Work

Similar to insecticides, herbicides are available in various forms, including liquids, gels, powders and pellets. Some herbicides, categorized as nonselective, eliminate any plant they come into contact with, while selective herbicides target only weeds without harming crops. For example, plant growth regulators are most effective against annual and perennial broadleaf plants, rendering weeds brittle and impairing their ability to photosynthesize and absorb nutrients through their roots.

Amino acid biosynthesis inhibitors affect a broad range of different plants by disrupting enzymes and hindering metabolic activity, ultimately killing the weeds. Pesticides are potent tools for combatting unwanted weeds and insects, leading to increased crop yields for many farms. However, some argue that the benefits of pesticides come at a cost, as they can pose significant dangers to human health, the environment and wildlife when not used under rigorous regulatory controls.

Dangers of Pesticides

Agricultural chemicals have been associated with a range of adverse effects on humans, the environment, and wildlife. These effects vary in severity and duration. Let’s analyze these concerns and identify the ways in which pesticides can unintentionally harm non-target populations.


Pesticides can pose significant dangers to humans, both in the short term and over extended periods. For instance, agricultural workers exposed to high levels of pesticides have exhibited reduced cognitive performance. A 2020 study conducted in Chile tested agricultural workers and rural residents to measure cognitive abilities, including logic, memory, motor coordination and executive functions. The study concluded that environmental exposure to pesticides resulted in impairment in neurobehavioral functioning, with more pronounced effects during pesticide spraying seasons.

Furthermore, high pesticide exposure incidents have even been linked to long-term loss of smell in agricultural workers. When pesticides are consumed, the toxins accumulate in the colon, potentially leading to elevated risks of colorectal cancer. It’s important to note that one doesn’t need to work directly with pesticides to be affected. Exposure can occur through consuming contaminated produce, breathing polluted air, or drinking tainted water.

The latter two sources of contamination result from the impact pesticides have on the environment. While complete eradication of pesticide use in agriculture is unlikely, measures can be taken to ensure they are employed with careful consideration of their side effects.


The environmental impact of pesticides often depends on their persistence in the ecosystem. Some pesticides are long-lasting, persisting longer than non-persistent chemicals. Regardless of their category, the presence of pesticides in the environment is concerning due to their unintended spread. Factors like field runoff, leaky storage tanks, improper disposal and aerial spraying can lead to the dispersion of pesticides beyond their intended areas. Some studies in the 1990s by the US Geological Survey revealed that over 90% of water from all streams contained at least one pesticide. These studies also found pesticides in every major river with agricultural and urban connections and in 99% of urban streams.

A dragonfly on a plant

Evaporation and subsequent rain can transport pesticides to areas where agriculture isn’t practiced, including deserted plateaus and polar zones. Depending on the specific chemical, water contamination can persist for days, weeks, months, or even years. Additionally, when pesticides enter lakes, rivers, and oceans, they can have lethal effects on the aquatic ecosystem. This harms fish and other wildlife. Pesticides can also damage soil by eradicating beneficial soil microorganisms, resulting in poor nutrient retention and nitrogen depletion, crucial for plant growth.

Nonselective herbicides are particularly harmful in this regard, as they aim to destroy all plant growth. Overuse of these herbicides can render soil unsuitable for plant life, ultimately affecting the very crops they’re meant to protect. Furthermore, pesticides can render environments uninhabitable for various animal species.


Pesticides are detrimental to local wildlife populations, as they can transform into even more toxic substances when ingested by animals. For example, DDT insecticides, while not inherently harmful to birds, transform into DDE in their livers, disrupting calcium production and leading to thin eggshells. Pesticides become increasingly toxic as they move up the food chain, a phenomenon known as biomagnification. This can affect top predators and even their offspring. In some cases, animals may mistake pellet forms of pesticides for seeds, consuming harmful chemicals.

 A bird holding a bug in its beak
When other organisms like birds eat an infected insect, the bird is harmed too.

Moreover, pesticides can eliminate the food sources essential for wildlife survival, forcing animals to migrate into residential areas in search of sustenance. This poses risks to both animals and humans. Herbicides that enter natural bodies of water can also destroy aquatic plants, leading to reduced oxygen levels and suffocation of fish.

Prolonged exposure to certain pesticides can induce physiological and behavioral changes in fish, making them more susceptible to diseases and predators. This can result in a significant decline in fish populations. Even pesticides deemed safe for humans and other mammals, such as pyrethroids, can be highly toxic to fish and aquatic insects. The mass extinction of species like bees and bats is another concerning consequence of pesticide use. It disrupts pollination and fruit production, thereby harming the very crops they’re intended to protect.

How Can You Grow Food with Natural Pesticides

That was a lot of information, but what’s the path forward? The utility of pesticides for the agriculture industry is clear, but how can growers utilize pesticides in a safe manner? Are there any types of pesticides that can repel unwanted pests while reducing harm done to surrounding environments? Lucky for us, there are alternatives that can make pest control a safer endeavor for both farmers and the wildlife that live nearby.

Natural and Homemade Insecticides

Neem oil is a naturally occurring pesticide made from the seeds of the neem tree. It can be used to repel mealy bugs, aphids, whiteflies, fungus gnats, locusts and more. It works by reducing feeding and interfering with insect growth hormones, affecting insect fertility and cutting population growth off at the source.

It’s wise to take precautions when handling or using neem oil. Wearing gloves when spraying and wash your hands following application.

A pesticide spray bottle on a table

Spraying soapy water is another homemade insecticide, which can control spider mites, mealybugs, whiteflies and other insects. Soapy water can break down protective layers of pests’ exoskeletons, leading to dehydration and eventually death. Soapy water has minimal impacts on non-target populations. It can be an excellent choice for those looking to minimize harm to beneficial insects and the environment.

When preparing a soapy water solution, use mild, liquid dish soap without any added scents or antibacterial properties. These additives may not be as effective and could potentially harm plants.

A New Way of Growing: Hydroponic Container Farms

With all this talk of insecticides, it can seem like the battle against pests is going to keep going forever. It may be one of humanity’s longest conflicts. Thankfully, there are modern solutions that are changing the way we look at agricultural production.

Hydroponics, the art of growing crops without soil, has grown in popularity in recent years because of its water-saving properties. By housing these efficient systems inside a secure shipping container, these operations can not only be efficient, but also pest-free.

Because containers are sealed off, it makes it much harder for pests to develop an infestation. In these operations, pests can still get inside, but controlling them becomes significantly easier. In addition to this, more natural pesticides like neem oil can be used, instead of potentially dangerous chemical pesticides.

Curious about the future of pest-free growing? Contact us today, and we can discuss the type of hydroponic container farm that will work for you.

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