Benbrook, a Washington consultant, was the chief author of the "Delaney Paradox," the National Academy of Sciences' report that led to the Food Quality Protection Act. Today, Benbrook is working on ways to change the produce industry -- and agriculture in general -- by moving it away from dependence on conventional pesticides.
"I probably know more about the Food Quality Protection Act than anybody," says Benbrook, who works from an office and home just steps away from the U.S. Capitol building.
Benbrook has a vision of the future of the produce industry five or 10 years from now: Fruits and vegetables will be produced using intense integrated pest management, biological controls and far more environmentally friendly pesticides. Retailers and consumers will pay more for this safer produce but not a lot more, maybe 5 percent.
Produce items grown with fewer pesticides will carry a label or a logo to identify them. This will be a consumer selling point. He speculates that a logo might be the Panda symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, the environmental group that has entered into a pesticide reduction and IPM project with the Wisconsin potato industry. Benbrook is a consultant on the project.
Benbrook has developed a method for judging the extent of IPM use. He calls it a continuum that ranges from no IPM at one end, through low IPM to medium IPM and on to high IPM or biointensive IPM.
His goal is to move agriculture along that continuum toward intensive IPM.
Benbrook, working with Consumers Union, has outlined his vision of the future in a new book, Pest Management at the Crossroads, published by the Consumers Union. The 288-page book contains details of IPM efforts and includes dozens of World Wide Web page sites dealing with IPM. Benbrook and the union already have sold 7,000 copies at $30 each and hope to sell 20,000.
Benbrook is both idealistic and realistic. He is not plugging for a switch to organics. He does not envision a produce industry in which produce is pocked and full of wormholes.
"People won't buy that," he says. "Americans expect to buy good-looking produce."
Benbrook is convinced that the chemical-intensive growing that has thrived in the past 50 years is a thing of the past.
With growing pest resistance, he says, the old system just doesn't work very well, even though agriculture spends more than $8 billion a year on pesticides. In addition, he says, government and the private sector spend $1.2 billion a year to regulate and manage pesticide risk. Government and the private sector food industry spend $120 million just to test for residues.
"Growers are falling out of love with pesticides," he said.
But there's a hitch. "The majority of growers want to switch away from pesticides, but the market-place must reward them," he said.
He admits he has not figured out how to do this.
One possibility would be to promote IPM, pesticide-free produce to consumers. This would give them a choice in the market. At some point, third parties would certify that produce is being grown with high-intensity IPM.
To reach the goal of having most produce grown using intense IPM, Benbrook believes it will require a "national commitment," with research money redirected into IPM.
Even chemical companies will play a role, particularly those who are working on the new biopesticides, which are low-risk compounds. Benbrook says the market for biopesticides is around $200 million. By 2020, if IPM catches on, this could expand to $5 billion.
Not everyone is thrilled with Benbrook's vision of the future.
Chemical companies, he says, have pressured commodity groups to back away from intensive IPM.
Benefits of IPM
But some producers see the benefits of intensive IPM and are showing a willingness to cooperate with environmentalists once viewed with deep suspicion.
Benbrook said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending less than $200 million a year on research into IPM methods. Agricultural chemical companies spent $246 million on advertising and promotion of pesticides in 1995.
Benbrook has no illusions about the need for pest controls.
But with the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act, he believes the whole landscape for pesticides will change.
Risk will be lowered as the pesticide effect on children is factored into setting tolerances. Benbrook said he thinks that the law is strong and that produce groups are just beginning to understand they were "rolled" by environmental groups.
In the meantime, Benbrook wants to work with agricultural groups, and others in developing risk assessment and showing producers how they can move forward on his IPM continuum.
Benbrook -- and his book -- have their own World Wide Web page: http://www.pmac.net.