While the debate over pesticide use continues to rage, many American farmers are battling bugs by combining elements of conventional and organic farming. Known as integrated pest management, or IPM, the approach combines the goal of reducing pesticide use with maintaining high crop yields.
Although definitions of IPM vary, it generally involves watching fields more closely to avoid applying chemicals before they are needed; rotating crops to discourage the development of pests that thrive on a given plant species; placing plants that repel certain pests between rows of vulnerable crops; and using so-called biocontrols instead of chemical pesticides when possible. Biocontrols include naturally occurring repellents and predators of insects as well as pheromone traps to interrupt insect breeding cycles.
Organic farming goes beyond IPM to eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers altogether. Because they are considered labor-intensive and costly to use, organic methods have been limited largely to small-scale vegetable growers. Some have carved out niche markets, catering to health-conscious consumers. With the appearance of specialty stores, such as the Fresh Fields chain on the East Coast, larger-scale growers are beginning to find a market for organic commodities as well.
But most large-scale growers find it hard to abandon pesticides altogether. Chemicals enable them to grow a single crop year after year, using the least possible labor. To help farmers reduce their use of agricultural chemicals, the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., seeks alternative means of controlling pests. The institute, founded in 1947 to study organic farming, says that some crops now grown almost exclusively with pesticides can be cultivated with no chemicals.
In our trials, we've been growing corn, soybeans and cover crops without pesticides successfully for over 13 years, says Research Director Rhonda Janke. We've always been at or above county average for yields, so the economics are there. Convincing Corn Belt and other large-scale farmers to adopt their methods is the institute's ultimate goal.
Some food-processing companies are defying the conventional wisdom about the need for pesticides and are voluntarily reducing pesticide use for at least some of their products. Three years ago, Gerber Products Co. Inc., which accounts for 70 percent of the baby-food market, adopted a standard of no detectable pesticide residues in any jar of baby food it sells. Although the company allows growers to use pesticides, it monitors growing methods and tests for residues as a standard practice.
Other large-scale food producers have adopted even stiffer standards, requiring their growers to use organic methods. Health Valley Foods Inc. of Irwindale, Calif., for example, uses certified organic commodities for 95 percent of the ingredients in its products, including cereal, bakery goods, crackers, canned soup and snacks. The remaining 5 percent comes from non-organically grown ingredients, such as rice, pineapple, papaya, mushroom, cinnamon and some other herbs and spices, according to Marketing Director Bernard M. Landes. For that reason, Health Valley's products do not meet strict California standards required of foods that bear the organic label.
Health Valley does not represent our organic products to be free of pesticide residues, nor do we represent our organic products to be safer to eat or of higher nutritional value, Landes said. We do, however, state our belief that organic foods taste better.
The mammoth Gallo Wine Co. is also getting on the organic bandwagon. Of its approximately 9,000 acres of grapevines, the company says, 6,000 acres are grown organically. The entire 2,770-acre Ripperdan Ranch, a Gallo vineyard in California's San Joachin Valley, is cultivated organically, says ranch Manager Greg Coleman. In lieu of chemicals, we plant cover crops down between the grapevine rows and release beneficial insects to create a balanced ecosystem where the beneficial insects can offset the pest populations, he says.
The cover crops, including peas, beans and oats, help enrich the soil and also provide a habitat for green lacewings, voracious insects Coleman releases into the vineyard to feed on the equally voracious grape leaf hopper and fruit-eating worms. Since introducing cover crops, Coleman has observed increasing numbers of naturally occurring insects, such as spiders, also thought to prey on grapevine pests.
The cover crops have enabled Coleman to completely eliminate both chemical fertilizers and pesticides at Ripperdan Ranch. But Gallo cannot advertise its wines as organically produced because 95 percent of the grapes used to make Gallo wines are grown by independent growers, many of whom use pesticides.
More and more growers are taking a hard look at alternative methods, and some are trying organic, Coleman says. But we're just in the infancy stage.