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Background information on pesticides and their use

This page gives some information on what pesticides are and why they are used. This information was obtained from the Health and Safety Executive, Chemical Regulations Directive for Pesticides website, (date accessed 9th February 2011).

What are pesticides?

'Pesticide' is a broad term, covering a range of products that are used to control pests. The slug pellets, ant powder, weed killers, and rat and mouse baits that you may use in your everyday life are all pesticides. Other pesticides you may have heard of include:

  • insect killers (insecticides)
  • mould and fungi killers (fungicides)
  • weedkillers (herbicides)
  • slug pellets (molluscicides)
  • plant growth regulators
  • bird and animal repellents, and 
  • rat and mouse killers (rodenticides)

Often people only think of pesticides as chemicals, but they include a very large range of different types of products. Some are natural (eg, pyrethrums, obtained from chrysanthemums), while many are altered versions of natural chemicals.

Why do we need pesticides?

Today's modern agriculture produces plentiful food, at a reasonable price, all year round. Most of us take it for granted that we can buy whatever food we want, whenever we want. We rightly expect our food to be safe and nutritious and we have also become used to food, particularly fruit and vegetables, not having any blemishes or other marks. We don’t tend to think about how farmers produce food or how it gets from the farm to the shops in "perfect" condition.

Over the last 60 years farmers and growers have changed the way they produce food in order to meet the expectations of consumers, supermarkets and Governments. In doing so they have made many changes to the way they farm. This often includes the use of pesticides.

Farmers use pesticides to:

  • protect crops from insect pests, weeds and fungal diseases while they are growing
  • prevent rats, mice, flies and other insects from contaminating foods whilst they are being stored
  • safeguard human health, by stopping food crops being contaminated by fungi

However, as pesticides are used to kill unwanted pests, weeds and moulds, they can also harm people, wildlife and the environment. This is why there are strict controls in place over their sale and use. It is up to everyone who is involved with pesticides, whether they are farmers, professional growers or gardeners, to ensure that they are used safely and effectively.

It is worth remembering that today’s pesticides have been designed so that as little as possible is needed and then only as a last resort (farmers use about a third less chemicals today than they did in 1983).

The law requires that only pesticides approved by Ministers shall be sold, supplied, used, stored or advertised. Farmers and growers are required by law to take all reasonable precautions when using pesticides to protect the health of human beings, creatures and the environment.