The Role of Pesticide Resistance in Food Shortages

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NEEDHAM, Massachusetts — For years, farmers have regularly used pesticides to protect their crops. Inevitably, some of the crop-consuming species pesticides target survive to pass down traits to their offspring. The creation of several generations of stronger, pesticide-resistant organisms poses a problem for developing countries and communities that rely on agriculture as a primary source of income. Consequently, pesticide resistance can perpetuate the cycle of hunger in more ways than one.

Development of Pesticide Resistance

While pesticides are useful for controlling weeds, blights and pests, the benefits of an increase in crop productivity can be negated by a failure to use pesticides correctly. When similar pesticides are used repeatedly, resistance to the pesticide becomes a serious possibility. Resistance to pesticides develops through the use of similar methods of pest population management. Although individual organisms are unable to increase their own immunity to overcome pesticides, populations can undergo mutations that change the genetic makeup of organisms over the course of several generations. This results in pesticides becoming less effective, leaving crops more at risk. The dangers of these genetic variations stem from the fact that farming communities experience heavy losses from a decline in crops. Pesticide-resistant pests and weeds attack susceptible crops, costing farmers income, time, and labor.

Effects of Pesticide Resistance on Agriculture

Due to individual genetic differences, some portions of pest populations survive to pass on their immunity over a period of time. More than 500 species around the world have developed a resistance to various pesticides. In East Africa, for example, malaria-inhibiting insecticides have increasingly lost the capability of impacting the disease-carrying mosquitoes. Similar to previous trends in pesticide resistance, some of the mosquitos that encounter the insecticide nets and residual spraying survive through variations in genetics. They then pass those favorable traits down. Since mosquitos have a far more rapid rate of reproduction than humans, traits that lead to resistance can become prominent in a genetic pool over a relatively short span of time. Altering the formulas for insecticides and pesticides after they lose their effectiveness on pests and diseases is taxing on farmers. The process also incurs sizable costs in developing countries.

Preventing Pesticide Resistance

Although a recent rise in pesticide resistance poses a serious problem for farmers worldwide, solutions exist. Employing these solutions can stop the creation of newer immune generations. Farmers can manage their crops by only applying pesticides when they are needed to maximize results with minimal usage. Reducing the dependency on pesticides can redirect the repopulation of stronger pests and pathogens. Additionally, rotating crops can prevent certain pests from becoming familiar with certain crops. Increasing and encouraging biodiversity also slows down the spread of pesticide resistance.

Other solutions involve regular monitoring of pest resistance. Examples of these integrated solutions for farmers include clearing out unnecessary plant material that shelters pathogens and pests and implementing grazing animals to reduce weed growth. Choosing the proper pesticide is also crucial in preventing future resistant generations — pesticides that break down quickly are sometimes more favorable in certain conditions. Pesticide resistance can induce severe losses for farmers and those dependent on an agricultural economy; therefore, managing crops effectively remains especially important to alleviate food insecurity.

NGO Initiatives Toward Solutions

In order to stop the reliance on pesticides that leads to widespread resistance, several non-governmental organizations have stepped forward. Notably, the World Health Organization (WHO) has made a significant amount of progress in the effort to fund and conduct pesticide and insecticide research. Relatedly, in recent years, it has also released annual reports on the status of malaria in the Americas and around the world. Research on the efficacy of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, or LLINs, continues due to the nets’ potential for malaria prevention. Broader applications that still target pests can arise from these research efforts. Data collection strategies include collective, laboratory, field and modeling studies. LLINs could offer hope as relatively affordable tools with applications for individuals in terms of agriculture and health.

Addressing pesticide resistance is an integral part of fighting food insecurity and assisting agricultural countries. With the work of NGOs and the implementation of integrated solutions by farmers, the rate of pesticide resistance can be decelerated. Along with it, managing the cycle of hunger could become an easier, more effective task.

Esha Kelkar
Photo: Unsplash

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