To buy or not to buy – Integrated Pest Management

0 Comments Posted by Erika in General on Friday, January 15th, 2010.

On my quest for locally grown and organically produced foods, I always ask farmers at markets how their food is grown and whether or not they use pesticides.  I have often found the answer “we use integrated pest management” intriguing as it suggests it is better than other (aka conventional) agricultural practices even though not as appealing as organic foods.  Integrated pest management (IPM), after all, does use some pesticides made of synthetic chemicals.  But, I have often wondered what exactly it means.  So, I did a little digging and here is what I have found.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes IPM as a practice where a producer can use multiple pest control methods, including “information of life cycles of pests and their interactions with the environment.”  In somewhat more layman’s terms, this means that farmers can do a number of actions to deter pests such as:

  • Growing particular types of plants that will deter pests
  • Planting crops at certain times when pests are less likely to become a nuisance
  • Weeding or using traps.
  • Using chemicals such as pheromones that prevents pests from mating
  • Spraying pesticides when necessary

The EPA also describes IPM as a way to “manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.”  The difference between IPM and organic food production is that while they use many of the same concepts, organic farming can only use pesticides that are produced from natural sources, as opposed to the synthetic chemicals in non-organic sprays.

For those of you interested in more of the nitty gritty of IPM, here are 4 stages of the practice.

  1. Set action thresholds – determine at which point it will be necessary to take a pest control action (meaning when will there are too many bugs that they are going to kill the crops?)
  2. Monitory and identify pests – determine which pests are a problem.  Not all bugs are bad.  Deciding which organisms will create a problem will reduce the use of pesticides when they are not needed.
  3. Prevention – certain practices can be used to prevent pests from becoming a threat, such as rotating crops between seasons and fields, selecting pest-resistant crops to grow, and ensuring crops are pest-free before planting.
  4. Control – if pests are deemed a problem and action is needed, the appropriate control method is identified.  The least damaging options are chosen first, and if all else fails, additional methods are used, including targeted spraying of affected crops with pesticides.  Spraying all crops with pesticides is a last resort.

So, what does this mean for you as the consumer?  Like most decisions on what we choose to eat, it is a bit subjective.  For me, I would still rather eat crops grown without sprays and in soil that has no residual synthetic chemicals.  For those of you who have read Silent Spring, you know that no one really knows the effects of chemicals mixing in your body.  However, if a farmer who uses IPM has a crop that you really can’t find elsewhere, it can’t hurt to ask if the crop has been sprayed during that growing season.  That way you can monitor your own risks and decide if it is worth it to you.