Integrated Pest Management: A National Goal?

The history of federal initiatives in IPM has been one of redefining the mission rather than accomplishing it.

The original intent of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was the coordinated use of multiple tactics for managing all classes of pests in an ecologically and economically sound way. Pesticides were to be applied only as needed, and decisions to treat were to be based on regular monitoring of pest populations and natural enemies (or antagonists) of pests in the target system. The use of a wide range of compatible or nondisruptive practices, such as resistant crop varieties and selective pesticides that preserve antagonists of pests, would ultimately lead to reduced reliance on chemical pesticides.

In principle, IPM would appear to be a worthy national goal. But after 30 years of research, it is debatable whether IPM as originally envisioned has been implemented to any significant extent in U.S. agriculture. The predominant approach to pest management in many agricultural sectors continues to emphasize pesticides and is sometimes referred to as “integrated pesticide management.” In insect management, for example, crops are monitored, insecticides are applied when pests reach a predetermined threshold, different insecticides are juggled to manage pest resistance to the insecticides, and new insecticides are evaluated for input substitution. In recent years, “resistance management” has evolved into a respected discipline in its own right—an apparent attempt to portray an admission of failure as a sign of progress.

In California, there has been some progress in real IPM, but integrated pesticide management remains the dominant practice for many crops. In an analysis of pesticide use from 1993 to 2000, Lynn Epstein and Susan Bassein (University of California, Davis) concluded that there were no obvious trends in decreased use of most pesticides used to treat plant disease. For insecticides, they reported reductions in the use of organophosphates, but attributed them to the substitution of newer pesticides such as synthetic pyrethroids. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR’s) January 2005 report on agricultural pesticide use revealed that pesticide use in most categories actually increased in 2003 as compared to 2002. As a result, the DPR director has asked the department’s Pest Management Advisory Committee to develop a “blueprint for IPM progress.”

Federal policy

The first official government use of the term IPM occurred in 1972, when President Nixon directed federal agencies to advance the concept and its application. In 1979, President Carter established the interagency IPM Coordinating Committee to ensure the development and implementation of IPM. In 1993, the Clinton IPM Initiative was launched, with a goal of having 75% of U.S. crop acreage under IPM by 2000. To qualify as an IPM farmer, it was necessary to use three of four key tactics: prevention, avoidance, monitoring, and suppression. Three out of four might sound good, but that made it possible to exclude monitoring, which is an essential IPM component. In addition, there was no requirement for integration or for the use of compatible suppressive tactics. This was illusory IPM.

A 2001 General Accounting Office (GAO) report criticized federal efforts to implement IPM and reduce pesticide use. The GAO found that “IPM as implemented to this point has not yet yielded nationwide reductions in chemical pesticide use. In fact, total use of agricultural pesticides, measured in pounds of active ingredient, has actually increased since the beginning of USDA’s IPM initiative.” The report concluded that, “federal efforts to support IPM adoption suffer from shortcomings in leadership, coordination, and management.”

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the National Road Map for Integrated Pest Management to identify strategic directions for IPM research, implementation, and measurement that would ensure that the economic, health, and environmental benefits of IPM adoption were realized. The need for the Road Map is a tacit admission that the Clinton IPM Initiative was a failure. The latest revision of the Road Map was issued in May 2004, with the stated goal to “increase nationwide communication and efficiency through information exchanges among federal and non-federal IPM practitioners and service providers.” However, the current working definition of IPM is sufficiently vague to perpetuate the status quo. Also, the central focus of the Road Map is on how to use pesticides to maximize economic returns while reducing risks to public health and the environment.

If the IPM approach does not really prevail in practice, why do such government initiatives remain so popular? Two reasons come to mind. First, for pest/crop consultants, pesticide companies, professional societies, government bureaucrats, and politicians, IPM sounds benign and enlightened. Of course, with more than 60 definitions of IPM now in circulation, it is relatively easy to find one that fits what one is already doing. Second, IPM is a fund-raising tool for land-grant scientists whose institutions are becoming more and more dependent on external sources of money to carry out their mission. It is not surprising that otherwise objective land-grant scientists can be reluctant to engage in a dispassionate, open, and honest debate on the status of IPM. There is simply too much research funding at stake.

Thus, IPM has become a “feel-good” term that offers a way for anyone to imply that he or she is addressing environmental and health issues associated with pesticides, when the reality could be quite different. The result is a “win-win situation” for most everyone, including powerful interest groups, and it is reinforced by the general lack of a skeptical, agribusiness press corps (the editor of California Farmer is a notable exception).

Congress should take note

The recent history of federal IPM initiatives has been one of redefining the mission rather than accomplishing it. A “time out” is in order, and the proponents of the National IPM Road Map should find the nearest rest stop. Redefining IPM to make it more achievable does not address the real problem. Congress should investigate why the federal government spends millions of dollars each year promoting a concept that, in the minds of many, is not practiced to any significant extent in many sectors of U.S. agriculture.

The first order of business is to promulgate one clear and workable definition of IPM. Then, several key questions need to be answered:

  • What is the status of IPM implementation? In which crops and states is it working or not working?
  • Should IPM be the national goal? If so, should there be a certification program for practitioners, perhaps patterned after that for organic farmers?
  • Has pesticide use decreased, stabilized, or increased in recent years? Are any declines in pesticide use the result of IPM?
  • Should pesticide-use reporting be mandatory in the states, as well as for all federal agencies that use pesticides?

It is critical to have a status report that is independent of those who have a vested interest in IPM so that we can begin to address the underlying reasons for its success or failure.

If IPM is to be the national goal, then we must ask: Is the land-grant system up to the challenge of delivering IPM at the farm level? Land-grant scientists typically are underfunded, continue to work along disciplinary lines, and are subject to an incentive system that rewards individual effort. Although IPM is a professional opportunity for these scientists, it is not necessarily a professional obligation. Departments or units organized around pests (for example, entomology, plant pathology, and weed science) tend to perpetuate the problem. None of this is conducive to solving an interdisciplinary problem such as IPM, and it does not bode well for the U.S. farmer. If the land-grant system cannot deliver, then the National IPM Road Map will lead to nowhere.

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Cite this Article

Ehler, Lester E. “Integrated Pest Management: A National Goal?” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 1 (Fall 2005).

Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall 2005