By Mitch Lansky
In agriculture, some interests are promoting expanded use of herbicide-resistant crops, and thus, by definition, expanded dependence on herbicides. Some interests are promoting expansion of monocultures of specialized crops that are highly susceptible to insect infestations and thus more dependent on chemical insecticides.
In forestry, some interests are promoting expanded even-aged management systems for softwoods that lead to proliferation of pioneer species. “Releasing” the softwoods from pioneer competition leads to increased dependency on herbicides. Many forest landowners have for decades been cutting in a way that encourages the proliferation of balsam fir, which is highly susceptible to the spruce budworm. During the 1970s and 1980s, Maine sprayed millions of acres (sometimes per year) with highly toxic insecticides to combat this pest. Now the budworm is returning.
Does it make sense, knowing what we know now, to encourage management strategies that increase our reliance on chemical pesticides? It might make sense for narrow interests, such as chemical manufacturers that benefit from increased dependency, but what about society in general?
It is clearly not in the best interest of the state of Maine to increase reliance on chemical pesticides for the following reasons (and more):
• Increased pesticide use means increased risk of contamination of food.
• Sprayed pesticides drift off target, and can leach from soils, into groundwater and aquifers.
• Increased use means increased direct and indirect exposure for humans, including workers, children, elderly, etc.
• The more variety of pesticides used, the greater the risk of exposing humans to combinations of chemicals that are more toxic than the chemicals used separately.
• Increased pesticide use means increased risks for exposed wildlife, including predators, parasites, pollinators and other organisms that play essential roles in local ecosystems.
• Increased use can lead to pest resistance (found in surviving insects or weeds), pest flareback, and secondary pest outbreaks as natural controls are disrupted – all leading to further need for more pesticide use.
• Increased use means increased costs to farmers and other users.
Maine already has a state policy to minimize reliance on chemical pesticides. In 1997 MOFGA and other organizations successfully lobbied to pass §1471-X. State policy; public and private initiatives to minimize reliance on pesticides (full text at www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/22/title22sec1471-X.html). A key quote from this statute is, “The agencies of the State involved in the regulation or use of pesticides shall promote the principles and the implementation of integrated pest management and other science-based technology to minimize reliance on pesticides …” (my emphasis).
Unfortunately, since this statute passed, inadequate action has occurred to ensure a comprehensive strategy for following this laudable goal.
For Maine to actually reduce reliance on chemical pesticides we would need to
• establish a baseline of the quantity of pesticides now being used by sector, including farming, forestry, right-of-way management, lawn care and buildings;
• coordinate research on chemical pesticide reduction strategies with the University of Maine, Cooperative Extension and all government departments that regulate or promote the various sectors, including the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Department of Transportation;
• have each department create a strategy, with targeted outcomes, for reducing reliance on chemical pesticides.
Other elements of a comprehensive strategy would help Maine achieve the goal of reduced reliance:
• Examine whether economic incentives (such as no sales tax for the sale of pesticides) are making pesticide use artificially cheap.
• The state should clearly define chemical trespass and ensure that penalties for such trespasses are realistic disincentives. An incentive to use more pesticides exists if the consequences of chemical trespass (where the chemical drifts or leaches onto neighboring properties where the chemical is not welcome) are minimal. Economically this is called an “external cost” – where the negative effects of a practice are not accounted for by the user but instead are transferred to someone else.
• Establish credentials for pest control advisors who are knowledgeable about the full range of pest control options. When the pest control advisor is a chemical company representative, or is paid by a chemical company to promote a product, the advice might be biased toward increased use. Unbiased advisors could help growers protect their crops in economically acceptable ways that also reduce pesticide reliance.
• Make sure any new state agricultural or forestry initiatives are harmonious with the policy of reducing reliance on chemical pesticides.
Using such a comprehensive strategy would help reduce pesticide use in Maine while minimizing social or economic disjunctions. Following such a strategy might not produce immediate results, but it will at least head us in the right direction.
About the author: Mitch Lansky is author of many books, articles and reports, mostly on forestry issues. He was one of the founders of the Low Impact Forestry Project, now part of MOFGA, and of MOFGA’s pesticide committee in the late 1970s. He lives in Reed Plantation, where he and his wife, Susan Szwed, run a small fruit tree nursery. Last year he retired, after seven years, as town manager of Reed Plantation.