September 19, 2022

California and Sustainable Pest Management

I pondered this article as I was putting out ant bait stations in my yard to help control an impending invasion of our home. Thankfully, the stations worked perfectly, and the “emergency” was avoided.

This got me to thinking more about the future of crop protection in California and what specific challenges lie ahead for the agricultural industry. While protecting my home from ants is important, it’s a minor triviality to the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry that must be protected on a daily basis from a multitude of known and unknown pests and diseases. Social and environmental activists would like consumers and public officials to believe that these materials are applied in an indifferent (at best) or haphazard (at worse) manner.

They are creating a true injustice!

Crop protection tools are actually applied as part of a well-choreographed scientific process. Growers make these applications in conjunction with highly trained pest control advisors and only apply when and where needed. They adhere to strict label restrictions as determined by both federal and California laws.

The key foundation of this overall process is “integrated pest management (IPM).” This term dates back to the 1970s and refers to a process that identifies the disease and pest that needs to be controlled, and then determines the most environmentally friendly and economical method that will offer the best control. IPM is not an “old” concept that is out-of-step with the times. On the contrary, the scientific principle is at the heart of IPM and thus naturally evolves with updated science and processes. Unfortunately, over the past several years California has begun discounting IPM. Chlorpyrifos was unceremoniously deregistered, and several crop protection tools are currently being targeted by community groups over unfounded fears of their overuse.

The State of California is considering the addition of a new term to the pesticide lexicon, “sustainable pest management (SPM).” Although similar in some ways to IPM, SPM has an added focus that crop protection strategies and tools should be socially equitable and just. What exactly does that mean? It’s not clear and there lies the concern. Those practices that are deemed socially equitable one year may not be so popular the next season.

The role of science also appears to lose its priority in the SPM paradigm. Science essentially would be placed on an equal footing as social and environmental justice. This is very concerning because science should matter just as it does in the medical and aerospace fields. Science should not be subservient to the crop protection application matrix. Secondarily, a tool should not be rejected on the basis that some group believes or thinks it is not socially just. That is simply too subjective of a standard.

Growers need to have a robust set of crop protection tools in their toolbox. This is true for both conventional and organic crops. Our food supply needs to be robust. Our state and national food security is a real concern, and we should be careful not to create a crop protection hierarchy that puts unnecessary and unrealistic roadblocks on food production. Agriculture is already facing headwinds from factors like drought, inflation and California’s drive to be a carbon neutral economy. This is simply not the time to hoist additional challenges onto our agricultural industry.