A billion pounds of conventional pesticides are used each year in the US to control weeds, insects, and other pests. Hundreds of millions are used annually in US agriculture. Is pesticide use a new phenomenon?

Interestingly, historical accounts show that pesticide use is nothing new, and in fact a variety of pesticides have been utilized throughout history.

Historical Pesticide Use

Since ancient times, civilizations have attempted to protect their crops from invasive pests, fungi, and weeds, all of which can pose significant risk to a successful harvest. A broad range of substances have been used throughout history to act as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and rodenticides.

Ancient civilizations used hemlock, aconite, crushed olive pits, sulfur, arsenic, and more to control pests. In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists discovered the utility of nicotine to kill insects and lime and copper sulfate to control mildew. The inorganic, arsenic-based compound copper (II) acetoarsenite (“Paris Green”), a highly toxic emerald green powder, was introduced for use as a rodenticide and insecticide in the 1870s. Paris Green was widely adopted for agricultural use globally.

The post-World War II war era saw chemicals, manufactured and used during the war, repurposed for use in agricultural systems. The commercial introduction of the insecticide DDT into US agriculture in 1946 launched what some refer to as the “Age of Pesticides”, a time of accelerating discovery and arguably indiscriminate use of powerful chemicals on our landscape and agriculture. DDT was originally used in the second half of WWII to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops, and was ultimately banned for use in the US in 1972 due to its adverse environmental and health risks.

Enter the Herbicides

While farmers have used insecticides and fungicides for centuries, the widespread use of herbicides is a more recent phenomenon, as weed control was previously achieved by cultivation and other methods. Highly toxic herbicides including atrazine, paraquat, 2,4-D, were all introduced by 1958, and are still used on our landscapes and agricultural land today.

Monsanto introduced the herbicide glyphosate to market in the formulated product Roundup in 1974. It was marketed as an herbicide that only acts on plants, not humans. Farmers were highly receptive to the product, and were pleased to have a highly effective, “safer” herbicide option in their crop defense toolbox.

Today, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in history. Since 1974, 3.5 billion pounds have been sprayed across the US and 18.9 billion pounds have been sprayed globally.

We are now witnessing the devastating human and environmental effects of applying these toxic chemicals for decades, and the trend must be reversed if our ecosystem is to survive.

Further Reading

Interesting perspectives on historical pesticide use from 1963

A timeline of pesticide use and regulation in California