The nation could cut its dependence on chemical pesticides and reduce the risk of illness from exposure to toxic compounds by following the example of Wisconsin potato growers, the Consumers Union says in a new report.
State potato farmers trimmed the number of insecticide, fungicide and herbicide applications after they began using computer programs to track weather and the life cycle of common pests, says Charles Benbrook, author of the report, "Pest Management at the Crossroads," which was released last week.
As a result, potato farmers here have cut pesticide use by 40% since 1980 and have pledged to reduce by an additional 30% their use of potentially harmful chemicals in the next three years, according to Dean Zuleger, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association in Antigo.
Benbrook, the former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences' Board on Agriculture, urges the federal govenment to foster more of such initiatives by boosting financing for studies of biological and other non-chemical controls, known as integrated pest management.
Brian Flood, a spokesman for Midwest Food Processors, an industry group representing Del Monte and other canning companies, said many vegetable processors in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota also had cut pesticide use by 50% in recent years. "We've cut our spray programs in half with better timing," he said.
Flood agreed that more research dollars were needed to develop biological controls that are not dependent on chemicals.
Non-chemical pest controls already available today include using an insect or microorganism to combat pests, such as the beetle that eats seeds of purple loosestrife, an exotic nuisance, or the bacteria that kill gypsy moths; disrupting growth and mating of insects; strengthening a plant's natural defenses against pests; and rotating crops to discourage growth of certain weeds.
Doubling the pest management research budget as part of a federal policy in support of non-chemical control efforts could reduce public health and environment risks from pesticides by at least 75% by 2020,. according to the Consumers Union.
The nation as a whole remains on a "pesticide treadmill," spending freely on chemical controls that do not work as effectively as they need to, Benbrook says.
Though U.S. pesticide sales have climbed steadily since 1970, reaching a record $10.4 billion in 1995, crop losses to pests have not declined, and more weeds and insects are developing resistance to the chemicals, Benbrook says.
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, was founded in 1936 to provide consumers with information on goods, Services, health and personal finances.