Cut Pesticide Use In Half, Urges SFU Biologist

November 28, 1997

The use of chemical pesticides in North America can and should be reduced by at least 50 per cent, says a Simon Fraser University biologist.

Mark Winston is the author of the new book, Nature Wars: People vs. Pests, a persuasive indictment of our ongoing - and futile - chemical battle to rid ourselves of the animals and plants that we consider pests. But more than that, the book questions our fundamental values about the natural world, and the human compulsion to dominate and destroy, rather than accommodate and manage.

The extent of the chemical warfare against pests is "staggering," says Winston. In 1993, for example, 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides were used worldwide. In the U.S. alone, that translates to four pounds of pesticides for every man, woman and child.

When Winston, a member of SFU's centre for pest management, began researching the book, he expected to find a rapidly diminishing use of chemical pesticides in favor of more environmentally friendly methods. He was in for a surprise.

"Most biologically based methods remain at the fringes of pest management," he reports. "Chemical pesticides still dominate - in our cities and homes, our fields and forests, our parks and lawns."

At what cost? He cites one million cases of human pesticide poisoning worldwide every year. Add to that the hidden toll from chronic pesticide exposure, which has been linked to immune dysfunction, infertility, and various forms of cancer and birth defects.

And there's more. Chemical pesticides kill millions of non-target species - such as birds, fish and beneficial insect predators and parasites - and wreak havoc with natural food chains. They also lead to the evolution of more virulent, chemical-resistant pests.

Yet the chemical bombardment continues. And who is winning this "modern war against nature"? Not us, says Winston.

"In spite of a vast increase in the amount of pesticide used over the last 30-40 years, the amount of crop lost to pests has increased from 31 to 37 per cent. The more we use, the more we lose."

Nature Wars, which is aimed at the general public and pest management professionals, uses case studies - such as the 1992 gypsy moth spray program in Vancouver and the ongoing coddling moth controversy in the Okanagan - to illustrate the complex political, economic, biological and social factors behind pest control decisions.

Winston calls for a more enlightened approach to pests, one based on management rather than eradication. He proposes a new pest management ethic that favors biologically based alternatives - such as pheromones, insect-killing bacteria, and bioengineering - with chemical pesticides used only as a last resort.

"Chemicals have a place in pest control, but I think we can reduce pesticide use by 50 per cent without a great deal of effort," he says.

More than anything, concludes Winston, it's our intolerant attitude toward pests - and nature in general - that must change.

We use as many chemicals as we do because the "pestaphobic" public demands it, he states. "Each time we turn away a head of lettuce because we see an insect on it, or an apple with an external blemish, we are encouraging the use of more pesticides."

Each of us has choices to make, he says. Does a single cockroach scuttling across your kitchen floor really demand that your house be bathed in insecticide? Do those dandelions on your lawn really have to be doused with herbicide? Does the blemish on that orange make it any less edible?

"I'm hoping that one of the things this book does is jolt people into thinking twice the next time they pick up a spray can or go to the grocery store," says Winston. "If the book achieves even that much, I'll consider it successful."

Simon Fraser University

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