We hear words like pesticides and GMOs or biotechnology all the time, but what do they actually mean? Here’s what you need to know:

Plant science from end-to-end

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are tools designed to deter or manage pests that threaten the health or quality of a particular plant, impact human health or pose a threat to physical structures. There are three primary types of pesticides related to agriculture:

Herbicides

Herbicides kill unwanted plants — weeds — so crops can flourish. Weeds and other invasive plants are actually the most damaging pests for many agricultural crops because they compete for vital nutrients, space, water and sunlight. In urban settings, herbicides help control weeds that could otherwise destroy lawns, gardens, parks and sports fields. They also play an important safety role in industrial settings — for example, by keeping telephone and power lines free from damaging weed growth.

Fungicides

Fungicides are pesticides that protect plants from disease-causing organisms like the one that caused the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1800s. In people’s home gardens, roses, tomatoes and peppers are particularly susceptible to fungi. On a farm, a fungus can spread quickly from one plant to destroy an entire field.

Insecticides

Insecticides control insects that could damage crops by eating them or infecting them with diseases. Fighting these pests is difficult in part because of the sheer variety of insects and in part because new invasive species are continually being introduced as a result of globalization. Insecticides treat insects like lawn-devouring grubs, tree-smothering caterpillars, maggots that tunnel through fruit crops and larvae that can devastate grain crops.

Urban, agricultural and industrial pesticides:

What’s the difference?

There are many different kinds of pesticides to serve many purposes. Three of those uses are agricultural, urban and industrial.

Agricultural

Agricultural pesticides make up the majority of pesticides in Canada. Farmers use these products to protect their crops against loss from insects, weeds and disease. Without them, pests severely reduce the amount of food, fuel and fibre farmers are able to produce.

Urban

Urban pesticides protect public and private green spaces from insects, weeds and diseases. They come in consumer formulations diluted for use at people’s homes as well as commercial-grade products designed for use by people with specialized training, like those at lawn care and landscaping companies.

Industrial

Industrial pesticides are used for industrial vegetation management — for instance, by highway maintenance crews to improve visibility or by oil and gas crews to prevent fires. Without industrial pesticides our highways and power lines would be overtaken by weeds, causing lower visibility, more power outages and increased risk of fires.
Why do we need urban pesticides?

What is modern plant breeding?

Since the earliest days of agriculture 10,000-plus years ago, farmers have been working to improve the quality of plants by increasing yields and reducing unfavourable traits like tough skins or hard seeds. These forward-thinking ancestors were the first plant breeders. Today’s plant breeders have carried on this tradition by using plant breeding innovations such as biotechnology to identify genes, introduce beneficial genes, modify existing genes and remove detrimental ones with a range of very precise tools.

Genetic engineering, which produces genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is perhaps the most talked-about type of plant biotechnology. Genetic engineering is the process of very precisely moving favourable genes from one organism to another. Farmers in Canada first started growing genetically modified crops (what we now commonly refer to as GMOs) in 1996. Since then, these farmers have benefited from growing GMOs such as corn, canola and soybeans that are resistant to insects and herbicides, which dramatically improves weed control.

Genetic modification is just one form of plant biotechnology. Today plant breeders have access to a whole range of plant breeding innovations for creating better crops that are good for farmers, the environment and consumers.

Learn more about how products of modern plant breeding are regulated in Canada

From field to table: The evolution of plant breeding