6 April 2021

The Science Behind Pesticide Development

Roberto Ramírez, MD

Public Affairs Manager
Andean Region
Bayer CropScience, Colombia

By Roberto Ramírez

As comedian Seth Meyers would say, “it’s time for a closer look” … at pesticides. If you look at a molecular level, you will discover carefully vetted, highly tested and strictly regulated formulas. And that’s no joke. In fact, it takes roughly $286 million USD and 11 years of research and development to bring such a product to market.[1] That’s $71,233 per day for 4,015 days! Needless to say, pesticides are some of the most tested and regulated products in the world.

Tests, Tests and More Tests

At the outset, an average of 160,000 chemical molecules are analyzed to screen out those with potential negative effects and to retain those with the ability to control specific pests. This subset is whittled down to a few or just one to become an active ingredient (what controls pests) in a pesticide formula. This ingredient is combined with “inert” ones that help deliver it effectively and safely to crops.

The resultant formula undergoes around 150 tests to evaluate a range of potential adverse effects in both humans and wildlife. These tests, based on internationally accepted regulatory guidelines, support regulatory risk assessment. They consider vulnerable populations like children and elderly people as well as sensitive windows of exposure such as pregnancy and puberty. If any deleterious effects arise, the formula is revised or rejected. If not, a large dossier of data demonstrating the safety of a potential pesticide is submitted to national regulators for evaluation. If approved, meaning it is safe for use as labeled, the product is registered for sale. A high margin of safety is ensured for both user and consumer (potential pesticide residue) exposures to the pesticide.

But regulation doesn’t stop there. About every 10 years, each pesticide must be re-evaluated and re-registered in keeping with the latest science. Both government regulators and the pesticide industry continually review and monitor products to identify any potential or unforeseen health effects.

New and Improved Formulas

Pesticides are continuously improving thanks to scientific innovation. Today they are more effective and less toxic than their decades-old predecessors; less can be used and they persist far less in the environment with minimal bioaccumulation in living organisms. In fact, most newer pesticides are less toxic than table salt or vinegar. That’s because problematic active ingredients are screened out early in the development process.

Regarding improved efficacy, active ingredient application rates per hectare have decreased 95 percent for newer products compared to older ones. This decrease from kilograms per hectare in the 1960s to grams per hectare today[2] is due to advancements in plant science and technology.

For example, computers are now used to evaluate hundreds of thousands of chemical structures that could be active ingredients with pinpoint accuracy. They are faster, more accurate and easier to use than older methods. Chemists “instruct” computers to ensure that pesticides are safer and more effective than ever before.

Biologicals, which are made from living or naturally occuring materials, are a growing class of pesticides … biologicals can be used by all farmers, including organic.

Biologicals, which are made from living or naturally occuring materials, are a growing class of pesticides. They include macrobials like predatory spiders and parasites; microbials such as viruses, bacteria and fungi with pesticide-like qualities; semiochemicals that interfere with pest communication like pheromones; and natural products such as botanicals. An advantage is that biologicals can be used by all farmers, including organic.

Moreover, plant scientists are improving pesticide delivery systems to make them even more targeted or controlled. For example, “microencapsulation” triggers an active ingredient by temperature, exposure to sunlight or other factor. Seed treatments are pesticide coatings on seeds that protect them from pests and diseases during plant emergence.

Since the 1960s, there have been significant improvements in the properties and benefits of pesticides. The number and variety of products have increased dramatically, including biologicals. They have all contributed to a major increase in crop production, primarily through improved yields, rather than cultivation of new land. Case in point, food production per tonne of active ingredient used has increased by more than 10 percent since 1980.2

The benefits to farmers are clear. But what about consumers? With fewer inputs and costs to produce it, food is less expensive. Moreover, people can and should eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains without worrying about pesticide residues. Now that’s good news for a change in “a closer look.”

Roberto Ramírez is public affairs manager, Andean region, for Bayer S.A. Colombia.


[1] The Cost of New Agrochemical Product Discovery, Development and Registration in 1995, 2000, 2005-8 and 2010-2014; R&D expenditure in 2014 and expectations for 2019. Phillips McDougall. March 2016. https://croplife-r9qnrxt3qxgjra4.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Cost-of-CP-report-FINAL.pdf

[2] Phillips McDougall. Evolution of the Crop Protection Industry Since 1960. April 2019. https://croplife.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Phillips-McDougall-Evolution-of-the-Crop-Protection-Industry-since-1960-FINAL-REPORT.pdf

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