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Alternatives to Using Pesticides

With the growth of the organic market, people are taking much more of an interest in what farmers use to control pests and the possible affects that the application of pesticides may have on the health of food, consumers and to the environment in general. However, without a means of adequately controlling pests, crop yields may fall or be of inferior quality. Farmers pursuing the goal of better returns obtained through organic farming must change their traditional ways of controlling pests. Others, not wishing to go the whole organic way, may be motivated by environmental concerns or by the cost of pesticides to their bottom line.

There are alternatives to using pesticides. These are generally known as sustainable agriculture or alternative agriculture. Under these names there are several practices, some very old, that can reduce the need for, or substantially reduce, the amount or type of pesticides that you may use. Alternative methods have been practiced for some time and include:

  • Crop rotation.
  • Polyculture.
  • Trap crops, which attract pests away from the valuable crops.
  • Reduced use of chemical pesticides.
  • Organic farming.
  • Biological pest control, such as:
    • Pheromones.
    • Entomopathogenic fungi.
    • Bacteria and viruses.
    • The release of other organisms, such as natural pest predators and parasites.
  • Genetic engineering practices, such as insect breeding interference.

You might think that reduced use or non use of chemical pesticides in favor of other methods would be detrimental to the crop yield and/or the quality. This is not necessarily correct. In Texas for example, the Texas Pest Management Association (TPMA) says that agricultural producers have been working with a now widely recognized pest population system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) since 1972. The TPMA says that IPM is not a rigid regime and defines IPM as, "A sustainable approach to managing pests by combining the use of all practical methods of pest control including biological, cultural, physical, and chemical methods, in a manner that attains the clients' goals while minimizing economic, health, and environmental risks."

Points that the TPMA stress about IPM include:

  • That IPM is flexible and can be developed for any level of crop production.
  • That IPM is aimed at minimizing or optimizing the use of high risk pesticides; IPM is not organic farming.
  • Using an IPM program is not low input, low yield farming; TPMA says that its evaluations generally show higher yields and lower costs.
  • That IPM is not tied to a specific products or services and looks for independently gathered scientific solutions.
  • That IPM continues to advance through understanding of pest problems and through the smart application of new and legacy methods.
  • IPM programs are low risk and potentially high benefit in terms of economics and health.

In 1994, the TPMA conducted a survey of 637 crop producers, over 25 counties that were using IPM methods. The results showed:

  • That 58 per cent of the survey reported a decrease in pesticide use by around 29 per cent.
  • That 46 per cent of the survey reported better yields.
  • That 65 per cent of the survey reported better net profits.
  • There was an overall $106m increase in profits across the state of Texas.
  • There was an annual economic impact from IPM of $340m across the state of Texas.

While the state of Texas has largely paved the way on IPM programs in the U.S., other organizations, such as the EPA, USD are now actively onboard. Furthermore, there are IPM centers for the north east, north central, southern, and western regions of the U.S. Applied properly, IPM techniques could deliver a better, more palatable product that could perhaps be cheaper to grow too.

In the U.S., working under the auspices of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the use of pesticides is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which limits the maximum residue levels that are allowed to remain on food. Moving along the chain, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for monitoring levels of pesticides on fruit and vegetables. Finally, it is the task of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to survey the residues of pesticides that remain in meat, eggs, and dairy products.

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