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I’ve been hearing people call for the good old days, when we didn’t spray chemicals on our food, companies didn’t influence agriculture and people and crops were “healthier”. Since we all forgot about the past, here's a (brief) history of crop protection.Thousands of years ago humans give up hunting and gathering for organized agriculture. Why? Over-hunting led to extinction and wild plants were over-harvested. Agriculture also allowed others pursue occupations beyond hunting and gathering. As early as 3,000 BC farmers started developing the first ancient pesticides. This was mainly driven by rampant famine due to pests, crop disease, and changing weather. Millions died. Some of the first pesticides included sulfur, mercury, and arsenic.
In 1,5000 BC farmers started practicing different planting techniques to control pests. In 950 BC, they began using smoke as a pest control method. Nothing really worked. The Persians developed one effective natural pesticide: Pyrethrum, from dried Chrysanthemum flowers.There’s evidence that ancient farmers recognized the importance of breeding crops for better traits (selective breeding). That evidence? All of our current fruits and vegetables are edible, and many crops have been selectively bred to grow better in changing climates. Agriculture continued to evolve in the middle ages (14th-15th century) with improved methods. However, poor harvests and pests continued to lead to famines across. If you didn’t starve to death, you probably contracted tuberculosis, dysentery, or other nasty diseases. In 1890, the most popular insecticide is lead arsenic (only took five years for them to notice it was dangerous). During the green revolution in the 1930-40s, companies developed synthetic insecticides, which increased yields drastically (more food for hungry people!)
Remember pyrethrum? In the 1960s, scientists develop a safer synthetic version called pyrethroids to control pests. In the 1970s, glyphosate changes the game. It’s safer for humans and animals, and controls weeds (a win-win!).The 1990s brought genetic modification. A quicker, more accurate, safer way to selectively breed for better crop traits (which farmers had already been doing for thousands of year). GMOs allow the use of less pesticides in certain cases and higher yields. Today, crop protection is working and our food supply is safer than it’s ever been. Companies are investing billions of dollars into better pest management. Could there always be progress? Yes. But let’s not overlook how far we’ve come and how much worse it could be.
Thanks for Reading
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