«We’ve covered the world in pesticides. Is that a problem?», asked Brad Plumer on August 18, 2013 in his reflection for The Washington Post on the impact of the massive use of insecticides, weed killers and fungicides by humans in the last few decades: more than 5.2 billion pounds just in 2007 «to do everything from protecting crops to warding off malaria».
And that’s led many researchers to wonder what sorts of broader impacts all these chemicals are having. They’ve helped feed the world, yes, but they may also be causing health problems elsewhere. To that end, the latest issue of Science has a fascinating special section on the world’s pesticide use. Here are a few good charts and highlights:
Note that pesticide sales in North America haven’t grown very much — and usage actually seems to be declining in the United States (more on that below). The growth in Europe, meanwhile, is largely driven by a big uptick in sales in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, sales are more or less stagnant in the Middle East and Africa.
Of the 2.4 billion kilograms of pesticides used in 2007, the United States accounted for about 20 percent of the total. But notice that American farmers are relatively sparing in their use of pesticides — using just 2.2 kilograms per hectare of arable land. Compare that with China, where farmers are “less trained” and the figure is more like 10.3 kilograms per hectare.
Of course, the skill level of farmers is just one variable here. The type of crops can matter too.
Related: There’s also this free podcast from Science that covers this topic in more depth.