Producing Safer Insecticides: The Future of Agriculture

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What is an Insecticide?

An insecticide is a type of pesticide, or chemical, that is applied to agricultural crops in order to get rid of crop-damaging pests and increase overall yields. Unfortunately, many of these insecticides are harmful contaminants that are what scientists call “persistent”, or they take a long time to break down and as a result pollute our air and water and harm wildlife. But researchers are trying to change all that with new approaches to producing pesticides.

A New Approach to Insecticides

Most of the widely used insecticides today were developed by screening a wide variety of compounds and modifying those that showed properties that could kill insects. Unfortunately, many of these are highly toxic to other organisms and must be used with incredible care. However, now scientists are incorporating what they know about the biology of insects in order to produce compounds that interfere with some essential part of their life cycle. For example, some insecticides mimic normal hormones that prevent the target insect from maturing into adults thus preventing reproduction and decreasing the insect’s population.

Other insecticides target specific chemical processes in cells causing the insect to die. A normal product in plants that does this is nicotine, however, once it is exposed to sunlight it no longer works. Scientists were able to modify the chemical structure of nicotine and create imidacloprid, a more stable chemical that is non toxic to mammals but lethal toward many problem insects.

One of the latest insecticides works by turning off the energy-producing processes of mitochondria within the cells of the insect. While in its primary form it was toxic to mammals, scientists were able to convert it into a form that was only toxic toward insects. Unfortunately, this type of insecticide is greatly harmful to aquatic insects and birds, so it must be tightly regulated and restricted in areas where it is applied.

While this is the good side of where pesticide production is heading, it is still important to remember that the fewer pesticides applied, the better. Even with these new innovations, I am still more apt to stick with organic produce, however, it’s nice to know that conventional agriculture is getting a little more eco-friendly.