Pesticides remain despite quest for alternatives

Don't look for chemical pesticides to disappear anytime soon. Effective and affordable alternatives are not universally available, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (NRC).

The quest continues to find alternative pesticides that pose fewer risks to humans and the environment at a cost that is not prohibitive.

Part of larger toolbox "Chemical pesticides should remain part of a larger toolbox of diverse pest-management tactics in the foreseeable future," said May Berenbaum, chair of the NRC's Committee on the Future Role of Pesticides in U.S. Agriculture. "No single pest management strategy will work in all ecosystems, so chemicals need to be part of an ecologically based framework that can safely increase crop yields.

Adoption of environmentally friendly pest management practices by Tennessee farmers varies widely, according to Gene Burgess, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture entomology and plant pathology specialist.

"Some farmers will adopt our recommendations more readily than others. We encourage use of multiple pesticides and various pest management strategies to reduce the occurrence of resistance in insects and other pests," Burgess said.

But there is the temptation to continue using the best chemical without alternating chemicals or using other methods.

"There are a lot of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) practices used today. Some use them to a higher degree than others. Taking soil samples and properly fertilizing crops are also examples of IPM practices. We tend to thing of scouting (for insects) and treating at economic threshold when we think IPM, but it encompasses many practices related to the control of insects, weeds and diseases in a profitable, yet environmentally sound, manner."

Genetically modified plants may be safer for the environment than traditional synthetic pesticides, but questions remain, according to Burgess. How fast do pests evolve resistance to them? How do they affect non-target species?

"Until more alternatives are developed and more is known about the ecological impact of transgenic plants, a need will remain for pesticides," Burgess said. "So we need to continue our research and explore the area of transgenic plants and developing safer pesticides."

The NRC's report encourages the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the amount of money it directs toward competitive grants in pest management. Other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, (NSF) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be tapped for pest management research funding as well.

Insurance programs For example, the report encourages the USDA to continue developing crop insurance programs for farmers who adopt environmentally sound pest management practices. It also advises the NSF and EPA to fund researchers who take advantage of satellite technology to conduct long-term, large-scale "on-farm" studies.

Burgess said that on-going clashes between the EPA and some members of the agricultural community come from EPA decisions that some in the agricultural community believe may not be based on correct scientific information.

"If a particular pesticide is unsafe to use, nobody wants it. We live in this environment and our children live in this environment. But we need to base decisions to cancel pesticides on sound, scientific information rather than on politics and emotions. That's one of the biggest problems we encounter," Burgess said.

There are several ways to discourage reliance on chemical pest control strategies that are deemed riskier, according to the report. Higher-risk pesticide practices could be subject to special taxes and fees. Or payment of government entitlements could be made on the condition that farmers meet certain criteria of environmental stewardship. Or regulations designed to protect workers could be more strictly enforced.

Another disincentive is to take certain classes of pesticides off the market.

Long-term goal "EPA's goal is to eventually cancel all of the OPs (organophosphates) and carbamate pesticides. They are putting safer pesticides on a fast-track registration so they can get rid of those with a higher risk more rapidly," Burgess said.

"The challenge we have is to protect ourselves, the environment and the remaining pesticides by promoting the safe use of pesticides and adoption of IPM practices. If pesticides are used properly according to label directions, they may be used safely.

"Many people believe that EPA is canceling a lot of pesticides needlessly. But there are those who are completely anti-pesticide and would like to see more or all pesticides canceled," he added.

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