When synthetic chemical pesticides came into widespread use after World War II, they were hailed as miracles of modern technology. They promised an era of abundant agricultural yields, the key to feeding a burgeoning global population, a potent weapon that would permit humans at last to conquer Nature, in field and forest, kitchen and garden.
It didn't take long to recognize that these miracle chemicals had costs and risks, as well as benefits. Acute poisonings of farm workers and children were the most obvious risks, but mounting scientific evidence gradually revealed a panoply of subtler hazards. Persistent pesticides accumulated in wildlife food chains, decimating populations of eagles, pelicans and other predators. Toxicological experiments showed that pesticides can cause cancer and birth defects, and damage or interfere with the nervous, endocrine, reproductive and immune systems in mammals.
Decades of research have only begun to unravel the many ways these chemicals affect human health. Yet, while the effects remain too little understood, we all are exposed to several pesticides in our food each day, and millions of Americans drink water tainted with pesticides. Pesticide use around the home, lawn and garden delivers occasionally larger doses. Science cannot say precisely how large the risks from these exposures are, for an individual. But a long-standing consensus holds that the collective risks to public health are substantial.
Health concerns aside, the promised conquest of nature by chemical pesticides has proved to be a tarnished miracle, at best. Genetic resistance to pesticides in pest populations and outbreaks of new pest problems when broad- spectrum insecticides remove natural checks and balances have led to escalating dependence on pesticide use, with no real decline in pest-induced crop losses. As pesticide use has expanded, so has the public cost of our reliance on chemical pest control. Beyond the largely unquantifiable costs of health risks, over a billion dollars is spent each year for the regulatory, surveillance, monitoring and enforcement programs we need to try to use pesticides safely.
The growth of regulatory bureaucracies in the U.S. EPA and in many states whose mission is managing pesticide risks rests on the assumptions that science can accurately define the risks pesticides will pose, and that regulators can ensure that risks never exceed benefits. We believe these premises are flawed. Nearly 25 years of Federal pesticide regulation have not notably reduced the aggregate public-health and ecological risks of pesticide use, and regulatory gridlock in the effort to control pesticides has spawned frustration and distrust of government on all sides.
There are better alternatives. For decades, researchers have sought to develop safer, ecologically sounder ways to manage pests. A variety of approaches, ranging from altering crop practices and using physical barriers to pest attack, to reinforcing and amplifying a pest's natural enemies, to disrupting a pest's life cycle, are in use today, and have come collectively to be known as Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. Pest management strategies that rely on interventions keyed to the biology of the pest-what we call biointensive IPM-can effectively minimize economic pest damage while avoiding both the health hazards and ecological disruptions associated with chemical pesticides. IPM still relies on some use of low risk pesticides, but generally only after other techniques have been used and steps are taken to minimize unwanted effects. Effective IPM s trategies now exist for many pest problems, and most are economically competitive with conventional chemical controls.
Why, then, doesn't everybody use IPM? Many in agriculture and the home pest control business have begun to, and are at least mixing some IPM strategies with chemical-based controls. But chemical pesticides still dominate. One reason is that IPM strategies are specific to each pest, local soil, vegetation and climatic conditions, and other local factors. It requires multidisciplinary research, often years of it, to develop successful IPM methods, and unlike chemicals, once developed, IPM strategies can't be packaged and sold everywhere. In addition, many chemical pesticides cost comparatively little to use, in large part because the risks and social costs associated with their use are not included in their price.
Consumers Union has carried out research and advocacy on various pesticide problems for many years. In 1993, we determined that it was time to pull back and look at the big picture. Our environmental and public health experts concluded that the dominant national strategy of managing pesticide risks, one chemical at a time, has failed, and should be replaced by a strategy of lessening the need for pesticides by expanding reliance on biointensive IPM.
We set up a Pesticide Policy Reform Project, whose goal was to draw a roadmap for a long-term transition to make biologically based IPM the central focus of national pest management policy and investment patterns. We hired Chuck Benbrook, a pesticide policy expert who helped prepare two major reports on pesticide problems in the late 1980s at the National Academy of Sciences, to direct the project. He led a team of CU staff for more than two years, collecting and analyzing data, developing scenarios and recommendations.
In this report we summarize the origins of current policies and problems, and map out a transition to make biointensive IPM the predominant strategy by the year 2020. That transition will be driven primarily by market forces. It will come about more quickly and cost less if it is guided by far-sighted policies in both government and the private sector.
This report will be a valued resource for everyone involved in the effort to manage pests safely and reduce the individual and social costs of pesticides. But it's just a start. The changes we envision won't come about without a strong effort to inform policymakers and mobilize support for reform. We plan to engage in those efforts, and to continue our research and issue future reports on promoting IPM solutions for various pest problems.
Pest management is at a crossroads. We have the power to choose a better future, if we all seize the opportunity and commit our efforts to choosing the better path.
Edward Groth III, PhD
Consumers Union, Yonkers, NY, August 1996