Why anti-pesticide campaigns do unintended harm

Black spots on roses and flea bites on kittens; blight fallen petals and overwrought Britons. These are just a few unfavorable things associated with “green” attacks on pesticides.

While pesticides have risks that must be managed, they also provide important benefits to farmers, gardeners and consumers. These benefits are being lost in a politically correct sea of regulations and blind support for everything “organic.”

News stories have begun to highlight just some of the problems associated with a foolhardy fear of pesticides. Let’s start with a very unfavorable thing: black-widow spiders are increasingly finding a home among organically grown grapes.

In the early 2000s, Britons began finding these visitors on their grapes, thanks to a grower in the United Kingdom who decided that spiders were a good alternative to pesticides to control fruit-devouring bugs.

Here in the United States, a Whole Foods shopper was appalled to find one of these surly creatures nesting inside her bag of grapes during the 2012 holiday season. More recently, black-widow spiders appeared on grapes in supermarkets in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The spiders are even showing up on non-organic grapes as growers try to reduce pesticide use because of bad public relations created by groups such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

EWG publishes an annual report demonizing healthy fruits and vegetables that contain traces of pesticide residue. The report places grapes, along with apples, peaches, blueberries and other superhealthy foods on a “dirty dozen” list simply because they contain a tiny bit more pesticide residue than do other foods such as onions.

Even though growing fruits may require more pesticides than growing onions, the levels are legal and too low to matter healthwise. In fact, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have pointed out that these foods are safe and healthy to eat.

EWG’s hype and the appearance of spiders at retail outlets are not the only challenges for grape farmers. Wine-grape growers battle a host of pests that require them to strategically apply pesticides. Even the most politically correct organic farmers use so-called “organic” pesticides. And thank goodness they do, since wine is among many consumers’ favorite things.

Yet sometimes organic pesticides don’t work. The Fetzer wine brand has recently abandoned its organic certification to fight the “Virginia creeper leafhopper,” an insect that feeds on grape leaves. After several applications of “certified organic” pesticides failed, Fetzer turned to a chemical called Imidacloprid, which belongs to a class of pesticides called Neonicotinoids.

Farmers and gardeners use Neonicotinoids to protect a wide range of plants from grains to fruits and vegetables to ornamental roses. Neonicotinoids can be applied to seeds, which eventually produces plants that systemically can fight off pests without the need for regular spraying.

“Greens” claim these products are responsible for the mysterious disappearance of honeybee colonies. But this problem existed before farmers began using these chemicals, and evidence is weak that Neonicotinoids have a significant effect in real-life settings. If you doubt this, read John Entine’s superb Forbes.com series on the topic.

Ironically, while some beekeepers blame farmers, the beekeepers themselves understand the benefits of pesticides. In fact, many of them apply pesticides right inside the hive to kill the Varroa mite, which they know for certain is a real and major threat to the bees. “It’s like chemotherapy,” explains University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp in Scientific American. “They know [using pesticides in the hive] bad, but it’s a lot better than the alternative.”

If we really want to help the honeybees and ensure continued food production, we need to focus on finding out what’s really happening, using the best available science, rather than jumping the gun to ban products arbitrarily. Indeed, the replacement products may prove more toxic to bees if we are not careful.

A misguided ban on Neonicotinoids would not only hurt agricultural production, even our pets could suffer. These chemicals are used in products that protect them from disease-carrying vermin, such as fleas and ticks.

The “greens” unscientific attack on Neonicotinoids is the tip of the iceberg. They have pushed for bans on a host of pesticide products, including chemicals needed to fight disease-carrying vectors. These anti-pesticide policies mean more people may suffer from disabling and sometimes deadly insect-transmitted diseases, such as the mosquito-transmitted West Nile virus in the United States, as well as malaria overseas.

Rather than ban valuable products, we can manage pesticide risks using sound science and balanced approaches. This will produce more affordable food and less disease. Then we won’t feel so bad.