Herbicide vs. pesticide: How these terms are used


‘Pesticide’ is a broad term that covers a variety synthetic and organic chemicals, including herbicides, used to manage farm production


Social media can be an amazing tool and a lot of fun, but as usual there can also be a lot of misinformation — and common misperceptions can spread easily. One of the most common ones I hear related to the terms “herbicide” and “pesticide” — usually separating them into two separate categories. It seems that too many people don’t realize that herbicides are considered a type of pesticide. All herbicides are pesticides, but not all pesticides are herbicides.

It’s likely that some folks only consider “pesticide” when referring to insect management, but that would be an incorrect interpretation of that term, particularly in the U.S. and Canada.

The word “pesticide” comes from the Latin words pestis (#scourge) and carder, which means “to kill,” and “pesticide” is an umbrella term that covers all different types of synthetic and organic chemicals used to control problems for farmers and homeowners alike. Herbicides are designed to kill weeds, and there are multiple other types of “cides.” For example:

  • Herbicides kill weeds
  • Insecticides kill insects
  • Parasiticides kill parasites
  • Fungicides kill fungus
  • Rodenticides are for rodents
  • Bactericides are for bacteria
  • Larvicides are for larvae

These are all considered pesticides, including herbicides. But often times people get this fact incorrect, so now you know!

When farmers apply chemicals, they often times must hold licenses, certifications, and go through ongoing training in order to apply. This video from the Peterson Farm Brothers does a great job explaining how it’s done. And this video shows just how little is often used. The amount, frequency of application, and mode of action all contribute to impact and effectiveness, and the appropriate thresholds are determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Farmers’ crops are often tested for safety, and pesticides (also known as crop protection products) go through decades’ worth of research to ensure effectiveness and safety. Farmers want to use as little as possible since it can be so expensive and time-consuming to apply them. Sometimes even, organic and conventional farmers alike apply no crop protection at all to fields.

The types of products used on a farm can determine whether a farm is conventional or organic (as organic has certain restrictions in place), but they don’t necessarily indicate whether a farm would be called “regenerative,” a more modern buzzword for which there is no commonly accepted definition.

So when you think about ag chemicals, realize that farmers have many, many challenges that must be taken care of or else yields can sometimes quickly go to zero. This can apply to the larger commodities such corn and soybeans, or to specialty crops such as apples, tomatoes, or lettuce. Also, cosmetically speaking, people don’t want to buy diseased or bug ridden nasty produce. How do we get perfect produce? Oftentimes, chemicals are used, something that has been done for thousands of years — some sources put their use as far back as 4,500 years ago.

Whether natural, synthetic, or built in to the seed, we should be grateful for the tools in the toolbox (when used responsibly) to ensure the world is well fed. They are also used in organic production! Sometimes, in instances like with rat lugworm disease in Hawaii, chemical pesticides can save lives.

One of my favorite analogies when it comes to agrochemical use is that plants are living and so are we. We need chemicals to survive — and everything is made of chemicals! Sunscreen is made of chemical compounds to protect us from the sun. We need bug spray to protect us from insect bites. We need medicine, food, and nutrients to survive. So do plants! Living things need protection, and it’s up to farmers to do what they do best and protect their crops just like we would protect ourselves as living beings, too.


Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is a farmer, public speaker and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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