Environmental Issues: Health
Fields of Change
A New Crop of American Farmers Finds Alternatives to Pesticides
During the past decade, the public has grown increasingly concerned about agricultural pesticide use. Exposure to pesticides, even at low doses, is associated with a wide variety of health effects, and these compounds are now commonly found throughout our environment. Despite some important advances, federal pesticide regulatory programs have failed to prevent an overall increase in pesticide use, risks, and reliance. This not only threatens public health and the environment, but it puts farmers' livelihood in jeopardy. Farmers purchase materials that are legal and that they believe can be used safely and effectively for crop production, only to later be denied the use of some of these chemicals because they are discovered to be hazardous.
In the long run, both farmers and the public will be best protected by a fundamental restructuring of pesticide policies and agricultural research and education programs to minimize pesticide use and rely instead on non-chemical, biologically based methods that prevent pest problems. A wide variety of alternative agricultural tools are available to reduce pesticide use and reliance, including those used in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and sustainable and organic farming systems.
Despite the significant number of well documented barriers to the adoption of alternative agriculture, innovative and successful farmers around the country are switching from conventional pest management practices, which are heavily reliant on pesticides, to profitable alternative agricultural practices that substantially reduce pesticide use. This report tells the story of 22 such farmers from the following 16 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Collectively, they produce many of the nation's most valuable commodities, including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, cotton, and dairy.
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 these farmers decided to experiment with alternative practices.
Most of the farmers 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 manage-
ment methods that have led to substantial reductions in synthetic pesticide use, ranging from 10 to 100 percent, 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 percent. The farmers use a wide variety of alternative pest management techniques, including at least one if not several of the following:
- scouting and monitoring for pest and natural enemy population levels
- precision pesticide application equipment
- rotating crops and planting cover crops
- switching to biologically based pest control products
- conservation tillage, irrigation management, and soil-building.
Close to 30 percent of the farmers produce all or a portion of their crop or commodity organically, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. (For a detailed summary of these farmers' achievements, see Table 2.)
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. In addition to economic gains, many farmers adopted alternative agricultural systems that have resulted in environmental benefits, including water quality protection, soil conservation, wildlife habitat enhancement, and recycling of urban waste.
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 (i.e., one without an economic interest in pesticide sales) has been critical to their success. Others are grateful for the help of neighboring farmers, non-profit education organizations, university researchers, and local extension agents. They also voice future needs if they are to continue making progress. As a group, their highest priorities are alternative agricultural research and education, cost-share assistance, and marketplace labeling programs. This report concludes by highlighting five key policy recommendations that, if implemented, would facilitate widespread adoption of alternative pest management practices and dramatically reduce agricultural pesticide use and reliance in the United States:
- Implement an immediate and comprehensive education and technical assistance program, organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to make possible adoption of alternatives to organophosphate and carbamate insecticides and to triazine and acetanilide herbicides.
- Substantially increase investment in sustainable and organic farming systems research and extension programs.
- Salvage the Administration's Integrated Pest Management initiative from five years of inaction.
- Dramatically increase availability of technical and financial cost-share assistance and incentive programs.
- Define terms and create rewards in the marketplace for foods grown using alternative pest management methods.