Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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Pesticide Facts and Perceptions

No longer passive, members of the nonagricultural public are demanding the farming community, as well as state and federal regulatory agencies, provide greater accountability in identifying and preventing risks associated with pesticide use. Thus, the dilemma for Extension policymakers, faculty, and staff is how to communicate effectively both benefit and risk information to agricultural and nonagricultural audiences.

Fred Whitford
Coordinator, Purdue Pesticide Programs
Purdue Cooperative Extension Service
Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

American farmers have long believed pesticides are beneficial to agricultural production. It's to this audience that Extension traditionally has targeted its pesticide information programs. However, today's Extension specialist and agent are being asked to address the nonagricultural public, a sector that more often than not looks past the benefits of pesticides to focus more on health and environmental risk issues. No longer passive, members of the nonagricultural public are demanding the farming community, as well as state and federal regulatory agencies, provide greater accountability in identifying and preventing risks associated with pesticide use.1 Thus, the dilemma for Extension policymakers, faculty, and staff is how to communicate effectively both benefit and risk information to agricultural and nonagricultural audiences.

Dealing with Facts and Perceptions

Because the scope of Extension has expanded to include a more diversified audience, the approach to pesticide education must also shift from a disciplinary program to one encompassing broader contemporary pesticide issues such as pesticide laws, public health, habitat degradation, and public right to know, among others.2 Since program participants from diversified audiences differ widely in their comprehension of pesticide issues, Extension educators have a tremendous opportunity and challenge in this highly controversial area.

Scientific inquiries about the chronic effects on human health, transport mechanisms in the environment, impact on wildlife, and other pesticide issues require technical expertise. Quite often, interpretation of the same data by scientists produces divergent viewpoints about the significance and implication of the information. Since there are no scientific absolutes, people are left to draw their own conclusions about risks and benefits, based on their perceptions and knowledge of the facts. A 1990 poll indicated that 75% of the American public now share the perception that pesticides pose a serious hazard to man and the environment.3 More specifically, the public's ranking of risks from food consumption is diametrically opposed to the ranking by food scientists (see Table 1).4

Table 1. Perceptions of risk from food consumption.
Public ranking Food scientist ranking
Food additives Microbial contamination
Pesticide residues Nutritional imbalance
Naturally occurring toxicants Environmental contaminants
Environmental contaminants Naturally occurring toxicants
Nutritional imbalance Pesticide residues
Microbial contamination Food additives

Social scientists indicate that positive and negative perceptions are formed easily based on one's own experiences (see Table 2).5 Farmers are inclined to form a positive attitude about pesticides because they're familiar with risk and because the benefits of preventing crop destruction from pests can be observed easily and immediately. However, the nonagricultural population is more inclined to focus negatively on the potential risks of pesticides because they have no control over others' pesticide applications, don't understand or are doubtful of the value of pesticides in the agricultural system, and are concerned about unknown or delayed health problems. Thus, supplementing information with perceptions helps one form opinions on any of the pesticide issues.6 A specialist or agent who realizes the role of perception and the importance of fact will be more successful in pesticide educational activities.

Table 2. Perceptions often supplement information.
Questions about a pesticide Positive perception Negative perception
Who makes it? nature humans
Who benefits from it? you others
Importance of benefit? compelling vague
Familiarity of risk? familiar unfamiliar
Arrival of effects? immediate delayed
Seriousness of effects? ordinary dramatic
Amount of application control? controllable uncontrollable
Location of risks? indoors outdoors
Visibility of risk? visible invisible
Morality? morally irrelevant morally relevant
Memorable? no yes

Educational Strategies

Educating the public about complex pesticide issues means Extension faculty must communicate a clear, concise, and unbiased message. By using the following strategies gleaned from private industry, state regulatory government, Extension, and research, Extension agents and specialists can challenge audiences to critically confront issues involving pesticides:

  1. Discuss pesticide issues with key community leaders to get a "feel" for the issues salient to the community. These discussions should guide preparation of programs to meet the needs of participants. Recognizing leaders of various opinion groups during programs will show your willingness to understand different points of view and will help calm an audience, complementing your effectiveness as an educator.

  2. Invest the time to ensure each presentation isn't only technically sound, but also informative and easy for laypeople to comprehend. Journals, trade and association magazines, and newsletters can provide insight into presenting technical information to general audiences. Attending workshops and seminars and reading a wide array of pesticide materials will also help Extension educators better comprehend the issues and remain current on the ebb and flow of debate.

  3. Specialists and agents will need to present unbiased technical information to unscientifically trained agricultural and nonagricultural audiences. This might-and often does-conflict with perceptions the audience has already formulated. Participants attending pesticide issues programming will evaluate each topic by two equally important, but separate, components: facts and perceptions. Thus, Extension must challenge audiences to think not only about the facts, but also their own perceptions.

  4. Concrete, germane examples are particularly important in illustrating concepts and providing greater understanding of a pesticide issue. Audience response and understanding increases when presentations incorporate examples from the local community or state.

  5. Always present the facts. Don't argue about whether an individual's viewpoints are correct. Remember, even scientists and regulatory officials may disagree on the interpretation of facts. Don't make an issue of who's right and who's wrong.

  6. Programs should focus on production practices, benefits, risks, and solutions as a whole system. Pesticide education should challenge audiences to view pesticide issues as an entity rather than focusing narrowly and developing opinions on the various components.7 Success will be measured by whether Extension can help the public to analyze a particular pesticide issue in terms of coevaluating benefits and risks (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Success of pesticide education efforts.

Educational strategies such as these may not completely diffuse the pesticide controversy, but can help Extension educators improve their communication with both farmers and the nonagricultural public.


1. F. Whitford and others, "State Departments of Agriculture: Pesticide and Environmental Specialists of the 1990s," American Entomologist, XXXVII (No. 1, 1991), 27-34.

2. H. M. Bahn, "Institutional Conflict Between Issues-Based and Disciplinary Programming," Journal of Extension, XXIX (Winter 1991), 23-24.

3. Trends: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket-1992 (Washington, D.C.: Food Marketing Institute, 1992).

4. M. W. Pariza, "Evaluating the Relative Safety of Biotechnologically Produced Foods," in Agricultural Biotechnology: Food Safety and Nutritional Quality for the Consumer, June MacDonald, ed. (Binghamton, New York: Union Press, 1990), p. 222 and George Criner, ed., "Look Through the '90s: The U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Industry," a workshop sponsored by the S -222 Regional Research Committee and Farm Foundation (Overland Park, Kansas: Vance Publishing Corporation, 1991).

5. Information contained in this table was obtained from many published papers by Peter M. Sandman, Environmental Communication Research Program, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Rutgers University, and from information published by Steven C. Witt, Biotechnology, Microbes and the Environment (San Francisco: Center for Science Foundation, 1990).

6. S. Rikoon, Development and Testing of Surveys on Pesticide and Groundwater Issues (Columbia: University of Missouri- Columbia, College of Agriculture, Department of Rural Sociology, preliminary survey, 1991).

7. T. F. Patterson, "Tomorrow's Extension Educator-Learning, Communicator, Systemicist," Journal of Extension, XXIX (Spring 1991), 31-32.