Two Examples Of Safety Improvement: Automobile Travel And Agricultural Pest Control

  • Published on January 6th, 2011

I remember the first time I wore a seatbelt.  It was 1964 and I was nine.  My dad had them installed in our Chevrolet Bel Air Station Wagon.

The lack of seat belts was only one of many safety deficiencies of that vehicle!  Obviously there have been vast improvements in the safety of car travel since that time.  No one would be surprised to read that the US rate of fatalities per million miles of vehicle travel has been dropping every year since 1920 and is now down to the range of 2 people per 100 million miles driven.

Vehicle travel is still a leading cause of death, but we have made great strides in the relative safety of this important activity and everyone knows about it.

A Less Appreciated Example of Safety Progress

The safety of pest control in agriculture has also improved dramatically over the same time period, but this is something that most people don’t know about or wouldn’t be likely to believe.  I think there are four main reasons for this difference in the perception of safety progress:

  1. Very few people have any direct or even indirect involvement in farming that would allow them to experience the changes
  2. Few people understand the critical difference between “hazard” and “risk”
  3. The way that the EPA regulates pesticide risk does not allow for relative safety claims
  4. There are numerous groups in society with a vested economic interest in having people be frightened about pesticides and other technologies

The Status Of Pest Control When I Was Riding In The ’63 Bel Air

When I was nine and first “buckling up for safety,” farmers didn’t have particularly good tools for controlling pests, and the ones they had were often nasty.  They had products based on heavy metals (tin, copper, even mercury).  They had products based on arsenic.  They had products based on sulfur or lime sulfur.  They had some synthetic chemicals including DDT and some of the early, and very toxic Organophosphates.  There was no Environmental Protection Agency and only an emerging understanding of the environmental, worker, and consumer safety issues.

What Changed?

All of this began to change in the late sixties and there has been tremendous progress since that time.  I’ve been directly involved in this field since 1977 and I have seen significant changes of at least eight types (listed in declining order based on my best guess of their relative contribution to safety progress):

1. Development of new pesticide products with very low intrinsic toxicity or environmental impact

2. De-registration or discontinuation of the pesticides with the most serious risk issues for the environment or human health

3. EPA regulation of pesticide use pattern restrictions (minimum re-entry intervals, rate limitations – total and per use, protective equipment requirements, minimum pre-harvest intervals) which limit worker exposure and consumer residue exposure

4. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches (scouting, economic thresholds for application,  trap crops, crop rotation, attention to preservation of natural enemies…)

5. Precision Application (seed treatments vs furrow drenches, electrostatic sprayers, drift control technologies…)

6. Advances in genetic pest resistance via traditional breeding, Marker Enhanced Breeding, or Biotechnology

7. Progress in non-pesticidal control methods (pheromone confusion, microclimate management, protected culture…)

8. Biological controls (a very cool approach and one I worked on for many years, but honestly a relatively small part of the solution)


When you see agricultural pest control characterized by its critics and by certain marketers, you would think it is an activity that is stuck in the 1960s ethos.  Its not.

I’ll make this personal.  I’m really glad that my grand daughter  will do all her automobile travel in vehicles that are far safer than what I survived (shameless grandpa picture below).  She also gets to ride in an infant car seat which I never did.  I’m equally glad that she has a food supply that is cheaper, safer, more environmentally sustainable, and vastly more diverse than what was available to my family when I was a child.  I just wish that more people appreciated the second change.

(Bel Air poster image from hugo90. Other graphs and images from Steve Savage)

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)


  • […] Many people would like the idea of no pesticides, but these are not people that farm.  Pests are a very real issue.  Since the 1970s there has been a discipline call “Integrated Pest Management” supported by ag universities and other entities.  It seeks to minimize sprays and to use sprays that are the least disruptive to natural biological controls.  These approaches are widely employed in specialty crop agriculture today.  Modern pesticides are far, far less toxic to us and far less damaging to the environment, and used in an IPM approach they are a key part of making sustainable use of the other resources that go into growing a crop. […]

  • Nice article; a couple of corrections:
    1) Auto fatalities are 2 per HUNDRED million miles – check the wikipedia graph you link to.
    2) Organophosphates are still in use (and still very toxic.) I’m not sure where you got that pretty graph from, but it omits the most popular organophosphates chlorpyrifos and diazinon, and other high use cholinesterase inhibitors like methomyl. The use of organophosphates is indeed declining but not nearly as dramatically as depicted in that graph, and it’s unlikely we’ll see end to the use of cholinesterase inhibitors in agriculture anytime soon.
    3) Sulfur and lime, which you cite as examples of old fashioned pesticides, are still widely used today. In fact sulfur is among the most used pesticides in the country, and it’s also one of the safest.

    • Spartin,
      Good catch on the driving stats. I fixed that. Other good points as well and I will respond.

      I made the graph of CEIs from the public data at the CALPIP site (California Department of Pesticide Regulation) and it was originally in a post which also included a graph of the other materials. Those are the less toxic representatives of that class.

      Yes, those are still at about 25% of their original use but with significant label restrictions and continuing decline. There are some new families of very safe insecticides coming along that I hope will finally push all those out, but there are places where they are still needed – sometimes to take out hot spots that would otherwise overwhelm something like a pheromone confusion program.

      As for sulfur, it may be safe from an ingestion point of view, but having spent many weeks in sulfured vineyards I feel for the farm workers who have to work in this tremendously irritating material. Still, it has its place. I did a post about that as well:

Comments are closed.