Plants are masters of chemical pest control
Throughout their lives, plants are constantly creating chemical concoctions and storing them in their cells. Commonly referred to as phytochemicals, these chemicals come in a wide variety of types, from the aromatic and ant-warding menthol made in mints to the alkaloids present in lupins that make them too bitter for most grazing pests to bother with. The most common reason for this is for defense, and many of the chemicals formed in plants are produced in order to make themselves less palatable and in some cases poisonous to pests. Many colorful fruits and vegetables also receive their tints through phytochemicals as well. Scientists have found that many of these chemicals offer additional benefits to humans. The phytochemicals present in garlic, for example, produce a strong aroma when released through damage that wards off insects, fungi, and discerning mammals. These same phytochemicals have also been found to be beneficial to the cardiovascular system while they help the body fight off cancer at the same time. Phytochemicals found in pine trees are widely used to make solvents such as turpentine and also find use in cosmetic products. Hops not only lend their signature bitterness to beer, they also release phytochemicals into the brew that aid in preventing bacterial growth. Many of these phytochemicals are antioxidants and help prevent damage caused by unpaired oxygen atoms that can disrupt cells in our body. Interestingly, studies are beginning to show that many of these phytochemicals work in combination with each other to offer different health benefits to our bodies upon consumption.
Variety is key
Individuals who eat a diet with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables have been found to have healthier cardiovascular systems and also lower incidences of cancer. These same findings have not been seen in studies of people who take many of the same basic antioxidants and other chemicals in synthetic form, however. In short, it seems that antioxidants and other phytochemicals react with each other and other chemicals found in fruits and vegetables in order to become more beneficial once consumed. As the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed increases, it seems that the benefits received increase as well, as a greater variety of these chemicals are able to come together and increase the effectiveness of one another.
More stress equals more nutrition
Plants are able to regulate the production of phytochemicals based on their current state- a blueberry grown in an environment free from the stress of pest attacks will actually have fewer phytochemicals than a blueberry that has to worry about fighting off hungry grazers. It seems that the more stress a plant endures, the more phytochemicals are produced as a response. In effect, many times the ugliest fruit in the basket is also the most nutritious. A Cambridge review in 2014 found that fruits and vegetables grown organically had up to 40 percent more antioxidants than those grown using other methods. This is thought to be due to the increased amount of pests present in such operations. To a certain degree, it is actually beneficial to have pests in and around crops since their presence tends to create food that is more nutritious and beneficial to the human body. The same approach should be taken as you observe the various munchers and nibblers on your garden throughout the season.
Leaving pests can be a benefit
Establishing a threshold for pest damage rather than attempting to eliminate it entirely is an important first step in responsibly controlling pests in and around your garden. While damage from pests may seem unsightly, in truth grazing alone rarely causes mortal damage. Instead, many times it actually makes the fruits of your labor even more valuable.