I’ve studied how pesticides affect bees for about five years now. During that time, I’ve been called both a “propagandist for Monsanto” and an “environmentalist idiot who doesn’t understand farming”.

I’ve had farming organisations criticise my work as “unrealistic and poorly conducted” and been told by farmers my science is “a refreshing change from the anti-modern farming rhetoric”.

So, I think it’s fair to say I understand as well as anyone that working with pesticides is a contentious and heated topic.

At times, it can seem like there’s almost nothing farmers and environmentalists can agree upon, and certainly not banning pesticides. But, let’s see if we can give it a try.

Farmers use pesticides to help produce food for us all to eat. Like it or not, if we banned all pesticides, we’d have less food on our tables. Or, more accurately, the poorest in society would have less food on their tables, exacerbating world hunger.

Conversely though, pesticides have been clearly linked to damage to wildlife, ecosystems, and human health. If we were to ban all pesticides, this would reduce some of the pressures facing our bees, birds and rivers.

It would also lead to farm workers and consumers having lower exposure to some, frankly nasty chemicals.

The question of how to balance these two competing interests seems like an unsolvable dilemma.

That’s got many people asking, are there any good options left? Well, that’s where the pristine, weed free, driveways of suburbia come into the picture.

Availability to untrained users

You see, pesticides aren’t just used by farmers to make food, they’re also available to buy in DIY stores and even supermarkets.

Absolutely anyone can go ahead and pick up a five-litre bottle of weedkiller to spray on their driveway or patio. It’s not just weedkillers on sale either, you can buy fungicides and insecticides also. In fact, in Ireland, there are 275 different pesticides products on sale for anyone to buy.

These pesticides aren’t fluffy consumer-friendly versions of the proper stuff, they’re just as potent as the ones farmers use.

In fact, in comparable tests some household pesticide products were found to be worse for bees than farm pesticides. I’ll refer to these as “amateur pesticides”, as they can be bought and used by anyone, even without the legal certification to spray pesticides. This separates them from the “professional pesticides” used on farms that you need certification to buy and spray.

Amateur pesticides come with very few rules on how they can be used.

Just a few lines of text squeezed on to the side of the bottle. In contrast, farmers face strict rules on how, where and when they can spray pesticides.

Further, there’s no training for amateurs, no Department of Agriculture inspections and no threat of withheld subsidies for misuse.

No one is writing up an integrated pest management plan with their agronomist on when to spray their driveway for dandelions.

These amateur pesticides are mostly used for aesthetics.

The lion’s share of the market are weedkillers for driveways/gravel/paving, fungicides for roses and insecticides for houseplants.

These products do not help produce food, yet they still contribute to environmental pollution.

Evidence from the UK has found that gardens which use amateur pesticides have lower biodiversity than those which don’t.

While there is the odd amateur pesticide product meant for treating diseases in allotment plants, why are we trusting untrained, unsupervised, amateurs to safely spray their food with pesticides?

Label guidance for amateurs

In fact, the scientific evidence we have suggests that when amateurs use pesticides, they don’t follow the label guidance well at all.

High proportions of amateurs don’t use, store or dispose of pesticides correctly.

Even when used correctly, these pesticides (largely herbicides) are often being sprayed onto impermeable surfaces like patios and driveways.

We have good scientific evidence that this kind of pesticide use causes waterway pollution, as the herbicides wash into the nearest drain and straight into a river.

Yet when we hear about the poor health of Irish waterways, all the blame is heaped on farmers.

Plant protection products on sale in a hardware store.

What is clear is that there’s a double standard being applied to farmers and amateurs.

Farmers have strict rules, training and oversight as they produce food, while amateur pesticide users are totally unaccountable and untrained, while they use pesticides for aesthetic purposes. So, what I’m here to argue is that farmers should support a ban on amateur pesticides.

Why banning amateur pesticides would benefit farmers

  • As the EU pushes for a 50% reduction in pesticide use, we should first look to reduce the uses of pesticides that are least important. We need to prioritise producing food over keeping gardens weed-free. Banning amateur pesticides would make it easier to hit the 50% reduction target for farmers.
  • Reducing pesticide run-off from urban areas and people’s gardens would make Irish rivers healthier and less polluted. This will reduce the pressure on farmers to change how they apply pesticides and nutrients, and bring more waterways into acceptable condition.
  • It would end the double standard applied to farmers on how they use pesticides.
  • Banning amateur pesticides would be a rare win-win situation in farming.

    We can reduce the environmental impacts of pesticides without producing less food. We can have healthier rivers without complicating farmers lives any further.

    Both farmers and environmentalists should be able to get behind this idea. And for those in suburbia who still want a pristine driveway? Well, they can either sit through the two-day knapsack sprayer course and get legally certified to spray, or they can use the first pesticide ever invented: elbow grease.

    Ed Straw.

  • Dr Edward Straw is a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin. He completed his PhD in 2021, studying how herbicides and parasites impact bumblebees. He has been researching how pesticides impact bees for five years. Edward’s research focuses on how we can regulate pesticides better to improve their safety for bees.