0 Do pesticides deserve such BAD PRESS?

Languard's PAUL CAWOOD seems to think not

Pesticides.jpg Pesticides have rarely had a good time in the media. It seems that, with little understanding of what they do or how they do it, journalists can tap into, and perpetuate, the negative perception created around pesticides and their uses. But what exactly is this perception based on? Is it the ability to solve problems in the environment that can no longer be done by other means? Is it the broad brush suggestion that all pesticides are bad no matter how modern, low dose, and environmentally benign they are?

In the last decade advances in pesticide research and technology have produced products that deliver high levels of performance with doses that are measured in grams not kilos. The most recent example is the introduction of the strobilurin fungicides such as Heritage. Steps forward with products like this have meant environmental profiles of products have improved dramatically. Real progress is being made in advancing product technology.

This is important as more modern products can be used in a sustainable integrated pest management system without creating problems in the future. This progress is known but kept within the industry - and never shared with the public by the media so, in the interest of balance, I hope to put the case for a new generation.

Most media coverage of pesticides harks back to the grim days of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in the 1960s and the tragic episode of DDT and the effect on birds of prey. When comments on birdlife are made on the television, the use of pesticides in modern farming systems and methods are routinely blamed for a decline in numbers. In recent years bird numbers and biodiversity have enjoyed a resurgence. Did anyone know that?

The previously unforeseen effects of pesticide use in the environment has lead directly to a new area of research, assessing the effects of these compounds once introduced to the natural environment. This area of research is environmental fate. It forms a cornerstone of the rigorous process to get a candidate crop protection / amenity product approved. Immense levels of knowledge are now held on how a product or active ingredient dissipates into the environment, and how the decay of these products affects the ecology of the environment. Despite this though, it seems that progress we, as an industry, should be proud of has not filtered through to influence public perception.

There have been some well-documented successes in improving biodiversity in managed environments such as the countryside, golf and parkland. The voluntary initiative was set up five years ago to improve practices and raise standards in agriculture. Horticulture and amenity need to address concerns held by the Government about the levels of pesticides being found in water.

The Governments favoured option was to impose a tax on pesticide sales to try and reduce their use. It was pointed out very successfully that taxation would not change the behavior that causes water pollution, but education, implementing best practice and improving professional standards would. This approach was successful from the start. The Voluntary Initiative met, or exceeded, the objectives set for it by Government. The Voluntary Initiative is now in its fifth year. It has been agreed with DEFRA that it will keep on going with its projects, on a two year rolling basis, to achieve local level improvements to water quality and biodiversity through implementing best practice at a local level.

Now, professional standards are being improved through training such as continued professional development. This is required for NRoSO registered sprayer operators and professional BASIS advisors. This continued training ensures that both operators and advisors are up to date with what is the best practice. With the Voluntary Initiative success and the improvements in wildlife biodiversity it could be expected that some of this good feeling might be spread - that use of these tools called pesticides may be going in the right direction.

For all the progress with improved product technology, increased biodiversity, and raising professional standards for advisors and operators it seems that communication of these achievements has been limited. We should be proud within our industry of making this progress, but shouldn't this step in the right direction be used to change public perception too?

The combined efforts of all those involved with the Voluntary Initiative actually staved off the Government's desire to gain a useful extra revenue stream from pesticides. It seems that perception by the public has not moved on or changed.

Perception is everything. Many of us use herbicides and fungicides in public access areas as part of the palette of tools that we use to provide a great green environment or provide the playing surface needed for sport. Do these tools, despite their perceived noxious nature, actually pose a risk to the users of the golf course, park or rugby pitch? As part of the discussion the risk posed can only be assessed using information that gives a fair comparison in a situation that can be easily understood. In the tables below are comparisons of the most common active ingredients used in amenity products to everyday chemicals that form the background of domestic life. The figure for comparison is the LD50.

A chemical's LD50 is a specific measure of the compound's toxicity. The higher the LD50 figure the less toxic a chemical is, the lower the more toxic. A good place to start is with herbicides. Roundup is the worlds most widely used herbicide. Its active ingredient - Glyphosate is regarded as having a clean and harmless environmental profile. So I'll compare this to things you might eat with a normal meal.

Active ingredient
Hazard rating.
Common Name
Chemical name
(if swallowed)
5000+ Non hazardous*

Black Pepper
Sodium Chloride

Piperine oil



Toxic, Corrosive
Ethanoic acid

Hazardous, Irritant

*As in the Biactive brand

Most people season their food. I'm not suggesting you put glyphosate on your chips as a healthy alternative to salt, but it puts things into a healthy perspective when you consider that pepper is potentially ten times more toxic than the ingredient that makes Roundup work.
Fungicides are a vital part of the maintenance of high performance fine turf. Protection from turf diseases is essential as part of planned maintenance. They prevent scarring and improve the consistency of fine turf. For the next comparison Chlorothalonil is compared to some everyday household medicines for headaches aches and pains.

Active ingredient
Hazard rating.

Common Name

Chemical name

(if swallowed)


Salicylic acid

Acetoanilide 800
Not rated

Chlorothalonil will help remove Fusarium and Red Thread from turf, but will not help with over indulgence at the weekend. The last comparison I feel is the most profound. Insects are resilient. They have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to survive. It takes a robust treatment to control them and prevent the damage they can wreak on fine turf. Chlorpyrifos is widely used as a last resort to help preserve turf that has had years of effort invested into it. How many Pitchcare readers would think that Chlorpyrifos is gram for gram less toxic than the nicotine in a cigarette?

Active ingredient

LD50 Hazard rating.
Common Name
Chemical name
(if swallowed)



Nicotine is six to ten times more toxic than Chlorpyrifos. It is also worth noting that Nicotine is approved as a pesticide product too. It is used on green salads and potatoes to control insects. How many readers knew that tobacco contained one of the most potent pest control agents currently approved? It should put smoking that fine Havana cigar on New Year's Eve into clear high-risk behaviour!

The voluntary initiative, NRoSO, compulsory professional development and the assurance of a rigorous product approval process can give us all confidence that if these tools are used wisely, in the correct way, then the harm that they will pose to Biodiversity, the user and the public will be negligible. They should form part of a wider plan to integrate the methods, both cultural and chemical, to control the problems that occur when managing and maintaining the environment we enjoy for our leisure.

It takes between eight and twelve years to develop a new active ingredient from the lab bench to a product in a can that will solve a specific problem. The cost for this development is vast. It can be between $250-$400 million dollars to bring a product to market globally. Roughly half this investment is dedicated to ensuring the effects to the environment or non-target organisms are negligible. This investment, added to the success of the Voluntary Initiative, the increases in biodiversity and raising of professional standards, is all very well, but little has happened to change the perception of pesticides or how they are portrayed in the media. This poor image will only be changed with time and education. All users of these useful tools must be part of the ongoing process which has avoided the burden of a pesticide tax, and which has delivered the tangible results in environmental improvement that benefit us all.

Find out more about best practice and standards at www.voluntaryinitiative.org.uk.
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Contact Kerry Haywood

07973 394037

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