Farm Progress

CropLife study shows benefits of insecticides

David Bennett 1, Associate Editor

June 3, 2009

8 Min Read

A three-year study by the Crop Protection Research Institute has found that for every dollar spent by farmers on insecticides, $19 is returned.

“The Value of Insecticides in U.S. Crop Production” also claims that without insecticides 31 of the 50 crops surveyed would see yields drop 40 percent, or more. Seven of the crops would experience yield losses of over 70 percent.

“Consumers are being more selective with what they buy,” said Jay Vroom, chairman of CropLife Foundation (CPRI is the research branch of the foundation), during a recent press conference.

(CropLife America represents developers, manufacturers, formulators and distributors of plant science products for agriculture and pest management in the United States.)

“However, food remains a necessity just as it was before this economic crisis. As a result, it's even more important (for food) to remain affordable … so no American goes hungry or sacrifices a family's nutrition.”

The study says that “without insecticides — and the higher yields and quality of crops they provide — consumers would pay higher prices for the staples they and their families rely on. (Annually), billions of pounds of apples, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes and countless other U.S. crops would be lost if not for these frontline weapons of technology farmers have available in the form of crop protection insecticide products.”

The need for abundant food is a global concern.

“One of the miracles of American agriculture is that we export a tremendous amount of food and fiber for consumers outside the United States.”

Vroom said Norman Borlaug (Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Congressional Gold Medal recipient and honorary member of the CropLife Foundation board of directors) recently noted that as the world food crisis continues to expand, “so does the importance of gaining better economic and social stability through agriculture and agribusiness. He said, ‘Developing nations need the help of agricultural scientists, researchers, administrators and others in finding ways to feed an ever-growing population.’ The new study shows insecticides can be an important tool in meeting those needs.”

The study focuses on the 50 crops grown in the United State believed to be the major users of insecticides.

“The first thing we did was figure out totals for the 50 crops from 2008 data from USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service,” said Leonard Gianessi, director of CPRI. “The 50 crops total 567 million acres. Production volume of the 50 crops is 1.4 trillion pounds of food, feed and fiber. The value to farmers at the farm gate is $144 billion.”

The authors sought three answers

  • How many acres of these crops are treated with insecticides?

    “We estimate 45 million acres — or 17 percent — of the 50 crops receive annual insecticide treatments,” said Gianessi. “So there is considerable acreage that isn't treated.”

  • What value do farmers gain from the use of insecticides?

    The report says farmers receive a $19 return for every $1 they spend on insecticides.

  • How much crop production is attributable to insecticide use?

“We estimate 144 billion pounds of food, feed and fiber. That's about 10 percent of the total production of the 50 crops.”

It's important to note the difference between fruit/vegetable crops and field crops, said Gianessi. “The real dependency on insecticides in the United States is on the 7 million acres of our fruit/vegetable crops — 80 to 99 percent of those acres receive treatments every year.”

It's also important to note that insecticides have been regularly used on most U.S. fruit/vegetable crops for the last century. Treatments “didn't start yesterday or 40 years ago. Large-scale, commercial production of fruit and vegetables in the United States has always been dependent on insecticides. The key pests that started the use of insecticides 100 years ago are the same key pests on fruit and vegetables today.”

Literature from the 1850s is “pretty clear there weren't any defenses against insects. Fifty percent of U.S. crop production was lost to insects in the field, in storage, at the markets. Growers didn't have much (to combat the problem). Fields were often abandoned — onion growers in many East Coast states had to give up the crop because of the onion maggot. Hops growers also gave up the crop because of aphids.”

The Colorado potato beetle “changed everything.” The pest first began eating potato foliage in 1859. The beetle fed its way across the country and eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean. “Trillions of beetles were washing up on Coney Island in 1874.”

As a result, potato production in the country dropped by a third and prices for the diet staple quadrupled. Something had to be done.

“This was the first instance in the world of widespread use of an insecticide to manage a crop pest. They used arsenic (and) by 1875 all the potatoes in the Midwest were being sprayed.”

Apple growers were another early adopter of insecticides. In the 1800s, many farms had apple trees. Most apples were used for cider, so farmers didn't worry about insects — “they were just removed with the rest of the waste after the cider was produced.”

However, by the 1880s, apples were being shipped to faraway markets from large-scale commercial production. Farmers soon found that urban consumers wouldn't tolerate wormy apples.

The key pest of apples at the time — and still the key pest — is the codling moth. “By 1908, the record is clear all commercial apples in the United States were being sprayed with lead arsenate to control the codling moth.”

Synthetic chemical insecticides were introduced in the 1940s. Growers quickly switched from lead arsenate and other arsenic-based products to the new compounds.

Why switch? “It meant a lot less damage to the soil and crop and many of the arsenicals burned crop leaves. And the new synthetic chemicals controlled many damaging insects.”

As an example, Gianessi pointed to the early 1950s when 50 percent to 70 percent of California's artichoke crop was wormy. The synthetic chemicals drove that percentage “way down. In our study, we estimate that without insecticides we'd once again have 60 percent wormy artichokes. The historical record supports this.”

A crop that's been totally dependent on insecticides is sweet corn production in Florida. Before insecticides, farmers attempted to grow sweet corn in the state for decades. They were unsuccessful because of insect pressure.

Today, Florida is the No. 1 fresh, sweet corn producing state. “We get almost 600 million pounds out of Florida. That's totally dependent on insecticides.”

Every three years, a major, new insect pest becomes established in the United States, said Gianessi. And the pace is picking up “due to international travel, changes in climate, etc. Insecticides are the first line of defense. They provide a high level of control and provide time to research and look for alternative (controls) if needed. There's a tremendous amount of research going on right now for invasive pests — but chemicals are the first line of defense.”

The olive fruit fly is a major pest around the world. It wasn't in California prior to 1998. Olive processors in California have zero tolerance for the pest.

“They want no olives going into cans with insects in them or being damaged by the pest. So, we estimate in our study that 100 percent of Californian olives — about 30,000 acres — are treated.

“There may be thousands of aphids on a soybean leaf sucking juices out of the plant. It was first detected in the United States in 2000.

“Soybean growers typically had pretty good success managing insects using just biological controls. But when the soybean aphid came in, it overwhelmed everything in the field. Soybean yields were lowered by 45 percent in some fields.”

Gianessi pointed to a photograph illustrating the effects of insecticide treatments. “On the right side, the treated soybeans are nice and healthy. On the untreated left, are trillions of aphids and the plants turn brown and (knock down) yield 40 percent. We estimate, as a result of this new, invasive pest, 14 percent of soybean acres (11 million acres) are being treated.”

How much do insecticides cost growers?

To come up with the answer “we started with the 45 million acres that are treated. For each crop, we estimated what the average grower spends on insecticides per acre. Almond growers spend $118 per acre, strawberry growers spend $500 per acre and wheat growers spend $5 per acre. On average across the United States, it costs growers $26 per acre for insecticides. In 2008, we estimate (a collective) expenditure of $1.2 billion on insecticides.

“Strawberry growers spend $28 million on insecticides and gain over $1 billion in production that would otherwise be lost. They get $37 back for every $1 they spend.”

There are four states — largely fruit and vegetable-producers — the study estimates would lose more than $1 billion of income annually without insecticides: California, Washington, Florida and Georgia.

Asked if he was concerned with the current approach to insecticides at EPA and USDA, Vroom said, “A very hot issue is the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision on whether or not pesticide applications would require a point-source discharge pollution permit. We're working through that and currently talking with the EPA and other government officials. Our greatest hope is the federal government (would join us) in filing for a rehearing in that Cincinnati court. It's an open issue.”

With regard to the Obama administration and Congress, “I'd say we've found people both on Capitol Hill and in the administration open and willing to have constructive dialogue. It's too early to make any conclusions about how things are progressing. But we're pleased with the access and willingness to talk.”

To see more on the study and a list of CPRI company sponsors, visit

About the Author(s)

David Bennett 1

Associate Editor, Delta Farm Press

David Bennett, associate editor for Delta Farm Press, is an Arkansan. He worked with a daily newspaper before joining Farm Press in 1994. Bennett writes about legislative and crop related issues in the Mid-South states.

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