Is Integrated Pest Management the future of agriculture?
Since its formalization as a term in the late 1960s, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a strategy that has been adopted in most parts of the world. Surendra Dara, who is an entomologist with a specialization in microbial control and IPM currently working as a University of California Cooperative Extension Advisor, is one of its most active promoters.
From a concept that was born in response to the discovery of pesticide resistance as well as the environmental and health impact of pesticide overuse, IPM has greatly evolved and expanded. Largely based upon his research published in a “New Integrated Pest Management Paradigm for the Modern Age”, Surendra has been promoting a more holistic IPM approach which focuses on its economic advantages and social acceptability. He also is concerned about not only educating growers but also helping make sure that market forces can be harnessed by informing retailers and consumers.
During his career, Surendra has worked with many crops from cassava, and grapes, to tobacco and cotton before joining his current position where he has been focusing on small fruits and vegetables.
I had the pleasure of discussing these topics with Surendra, and during our brief interview we touched upon some of the advantages of IPM, the current lack of incentives for its adoption, the difference between IPM and organic practices as well as the need for better field scouting and education.
IPM adoption suffers from a lack of incentives
There are many advantages to implementing IPM because it optimizes the cost of production (a benefit to the farmer) and the cost of food (a benefit to the consumer) without indirect environmental costs while also providing a long-term benefit for overall food production (a benefit to the environment).
Many growers are aware of IPM and biocontrol (one of its most well-known tactics), and some crops are already widely implementing them.
As an example, Surendra estimates that “90-95% of strawberry growers in California use predatory mites to manage pest mites. It is one of the best examples of inundative biological control in outdoor farming.”
But there is still a lot of work to do to encourage its adoption at a global level.
“The lack of incentives for adopting IPM is probably the strongest barrier. One might think the complexity of IPM, the cost of certain practices, and other such factors are the main challenges," explains Surendra.
"However, there is no reward for IPM implementation because there is no branding to show it is safe and sustainable."
Raising the global standard for food, not only for organic products
Conventional practices have become safer with newer chemicals, stricter guidelines, and improved knowledge, thanks to the development of IPM (among other things). The productivity of organic farming has also improved with new technologies and agricultural inputs, some of which are very close to chemical pesticides.
Yet, both conventional and organic practices are still often viewed as diametrically opposed practices, philosophies and economic models where consumers consider organic products to be safe and environmentally friendly but producing smaller, more expensive yields whereas conventional farming is seen as potentially harmful for the health and bad for the environment but much less expensive.
Surendra, however, shares a more balanced perspective.
“There are also several environmental costs associated with organically approved practices. For example, some organic pesticides are non-selective and harm natural enemy populations, and the overuse of some organic pesticides has led to resistance issues in multiple pests," he said.
"In strawberry, fuel used to operate tractor-mounted bug vacuums several times to remove the western tarnished plant bug (lygus bug) can have a greater negative impact than operating the tractor once or twice to apply a pesticide during the same period.”
In addition, the term “sustainability” has a broad, amorphous meaning and is often misunderstood. It frequently represents environmental sustainability without any consideration of the economic and social parts of the equation.
“This is where an IPM-based production ensures profitability for the farmers and retailers, safety for the environment and human health, and affordability for the consumers,” explains Surendra.
The rise of organic agriculture and its certifications has helped to raise the global standard, bringing new knowledge and encouraging the regulation of potentially harmful products while allowing growers to sell their products at higher prices. On the other hand, there is nothing done at the retail level to encourage the purchase of food produced using IPM techniques.
“I understand that another certification might look like an additional burden, but a system can be developed to reduce the complexity of the certification process. With that system, we can still give an ‘IPM-based’ or ‘Sustainably Produced’ label, if we want a label” thinks Surendra.
But in the future, could certification and differentiated prices disappear? "If we have one system of producing food safely and sustainably, then there will be one price. We already have multiple classes in our society and there is no need to bring that into the food that we consume" he hopes.
Field scouting and education
Surendra believes growers are doing their best considering how many demands are made on their time and focus, however, “I wish they had more time to learn the new techniques and the opportunities to implement them” he regrets.
There are several online sources for growers eager to improve their knowledge including the University of California IPM website, open access scientific journals (such as the Journal of Integrated Pest Management), Surendra’s electronic journal of Entomology and Biologicals, and articles written by his colleagues at UC or other universities. Growers and IPM practitioners can attend extension meetings and webinars or consult with Surendra and his colleagues.
To get right into the implementation of IPM, Surendra insists on the importance of field scouting (like I had discussed previously with Liron Brish from Farm Dog in a previous interview).
“It is one of the most important components of IPM, but there aren’t enough human resources and time to cover all the acreage. If those working in the fields on harvesting and other agronomic tasks are trained to recognize pests and diseases, it will certainly contribute to improved scouting. This is one of the aspects I frequently mention in my IPM talks. Drones and other technologies can also be very useful for improved scouting.”
To conclude, Surendra emphasizes that the spread of IPM will also require educating retailers and consumers who need to be informed about these facts.
He is working on this issue but cautions that “it is a lengthy process and I have been trying to find collaborators to work with me on this”. Agricultural technology and service companies such as UAV-IQ are eager to support Surendra’s efforts and if you are interested in supporting this endeavor, please reach out to Surendra Dara as well.
UAV-IQ is helping organic and conventional growers implement biocontrol in an efficient and cost-effective manner by using drones to release beneficial insects exactly when and where they’re needed to suppress pests.