Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
September 18, 1998
Farmers around the U.S. are switching from conventional pest management practices, which are heavily reliant on pesticides, to profitable alternative agricultural practices that substantially reduce pesticide use, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Fields of Change: A New Crop of American Farmers Finds Alternatives to Pesticides” looks at 22 farmers from 16 states who produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, cotton and dairy products.
As recently as 15 years ago, all of these farmers relied extensively on pesticides to manage insects, weeds and diseases. In many cases, pesticides were applied prophylactically or on a calendar basis without regard to the level of pest pressure or presence of natural controls. In response to economic, environmental, health and/or ethical concerns, each of the farmers profiled decided to experiment with alternative practices.
Most of the farmers in the report began their transition to alternative agriculture on a small scale, practicing on a portion of their acreage before expanding. With experience, they have each developed localized, economically viable pest and farm management methods that have led to substantial reductions in synthetic pesticide use, ranging from 10% to 100%, depending on the crop and type of pesticide. Two-thirds of the farmers have reduced one or more synthetic pesticide types between 50% and 100%. Close to 30% of the farmers produce all or a portion of their crop or commodity organically, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
According to the report, all of the farmers made the conversion from conventional pest management systems to alternative pest management systems while maintaining and in many cases improving, the profitability of their operations. “The motivations to change were strikingly similar among the farmers we surveyed. They wanted lower production costs, less soil erosion, incomes that could withstand fluctuations in markets and regulations, reduced health risks from toxic chemicals and less water pollution from farm runoff,” says Jennifer Curtis, author of the report. The report notes that these farmers managed to change their systems despite significant government, market and cultural barriers.
Each farmer can identify at least one person or program that has helped them reduce pesticide use. Many of the farmers have found, for example, that hiring an independent pest control advisor (one without an economic interest in pesticide sales) has been critical to their success. Others received help from neighboring farmers, non-profit education organizations, university researchers and local extension agents.
That report points out the biologically-based pest management projects make up less than 0.5% of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) research and education budget. USDA spent about US$132 million directly or indirectly on Integrated Pest Management research in 1997, roughly 7% of the total agency research and education budget of US$1.9 billion. Only about 1% of 30,000 agricultural research projects supported by USDA were pertinent to organic farming, and only 0.1% were explicitly focused on organic farming.
NRDC proposes increasing funding for USDA’s sustainable agriculture research and education program by US$50 million over the next five years. Since 1988, funding in this area amounts to less than US$11 million, barely 0.5% of USDA’s total research and education budget. In addition, NRDC advocates a US$38 million funding level for research on organic farming methods and systems.
“There is a tremendous untapped potential for alternative farming methods to reduce pesticide use in U.S. agriculture,” said Curtis. “The challenge is to break down walls and the stigma in industrial agriculture that prevent farmers from knowing about and using biologically-based pest control methods.”
Copies of the report are available from NRDC, Publications Dept., 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011 for US$14 plus US$3.00 shipping. Make checks payable to NRDC in U.S. dollars only.
Source: NRDC press release , July 22, 1998. “Fields of Change,” NRDC, 1998.
Contact: NRDC, 1200 New York Ave., NW, Suite 400, Washington DC 20005; phone (202) 289-1060; fax (202) 289-1060; www.nrdc.org.