Reducing Pesticide Use: How to Cut Costs and Be a Green Hero

Reducing Pesticide Use: How to Cut Costs and Be a Green Hero

So it's just a choice between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, right? Wrong! If we reduce pesticide use, we'll all starve, and more precious biodiversity will have to be converted to agriculture to feed us, right? Wrong!

It is a myth that pesticide use reduction has to mean higher costs and fewer choices. Actually, leading companies have been systematically reducing their pesticide use, thereby cutting costs while also lowering hazards to farm families, farm workers, local communities and the environment. Smart companies seeking to make their supply chains more sustainable will profit from learning what industry leaders already know about living with fewer pesticides.

Pesticide use reduction usually is part of corporate programs for "sustainable agriculture" or "Integrated Pest Management." Consumer Union's report, "Pest Management at the Crossroads," features an "Integrated Pest Management Continuum" that illustrates the different degrees to which reduction can be pursued.

For example, rather than applying pesticides at regular intervals (calendar-based applications), growers can anticipate pest pressures via meteorological computer programs and measure actual pest pressure via traps in fields, and apply pesticides only when it makes clear economic sense (threshold-based applications). They can also systematically substitute "reduced risk" pesticides. Beyond such efficiency and targeted toxicity reduction, growers can employ multiple preventive tactics such as crop rotations and planting resistant varieties. Farther along the continuum are more "bio-intensive" practices, such as releasing beneficial organisms, applying hormones to disrupt pest mating, and using biologically based bacterial pesticides rather than petroleum derived formulas. Pesticide use reduction occurs as growers move along the continuum, even if they don't move all the way to certified organic production.

In its inaugural Corporate Social Responsibility report last year, Campbell's declared sustainable agriculture to be one of its four core sustainability priorities. When Campbell's began its program about 20 years ago, as a way of reassuring its growers, it agreed to share the economic risks from adopting new techniques. Its growers would manage both conventional plots and IPM plots, and Campbell's agreed that if there were shortfalls in yield or quality in the pilot plots, it would make up the difference. In fact, yield and quality were not issues, and costs dropped. Across a wide range of crops, Campbell's now reports that the need for synthetic pesticides has dropped 50 percent.

General Mills is another company with decades of experience using integrated pest management techniques that reduce pesticide use. In its 2008 CSR report, General Mills notes that on Green Giant corn products since 1980, it:
• Reduced insecticide poundage 80 percent
• Reduced insecticide applications 40 percent
• Reduced insect control costs 37 percent
• Deployed less toxic pesticides
General Mills has established goals for future reductions: a 30 percent reduction in insecticide applications in sweet corn by 2010 and a 5 percent reduction in herbicide use (from a 2007 base).

Sysco, the largest institutional food service company in the United States, launched its IPM program in 2001. Implemented by processors and growers beginning in 2005, the program features online reporting and third-party auditing. Sysco's corporate sustainability report discloses that over the program's first three years, applications of pesticide active ingredients have dropped by 900,000 pounds and IPM has been extended to more than 600,000 acres of production.

Best management principles can be derived from these corporate experiences. These include:
• Develop metrics for pesticide use
• Establish goals for reducing use and eliminating the most hazardous pesticides
• Provide incentives to suppliers to achieve pesticide reduction goals
Developing appropriate metrics and measurement systems for pesticide reduction and for assessing other components of agriculture's environmental footprint can be a daunting challenge. Numerous companies and research organizations are engaged in collaborative efforts to advance the state of the art. These include, for example, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops and the IPM Options Evaluation Tool under development at the IPM Institute of North America.

McDonald's, whose 2 billion pounds of potato purchases annually make it the largest buyer of potatoes in the United States, recently agreed in response to a shareholder resolution to develop a pesticide use reduction survey form for its potato suppliers, to collect and share examples of best practices, and to encourage best practices in its global supply chain. It will be reporting on its progress in its CSR report and on the Internet. In developing its program, McDonald's can build on past experience and work in progress.

Wal-Mart also intends to build on past experience and work in progress in reducing the environmental footprint of its food and agriculture supply chain. Wal-Mart has created a "Chemical Inputs Subcommittee" of its Food and Agriculture Sustainable Value Network. The subcommittee, comprised of Wal-Mart staff, suppliers, and other stakeholders, has a goal of developing a set of metrics that can provide insight to Wal-Mart's buyers regarding food suppliers' use of chemical inputs such as pesticides.

So here are some bottom line questions for food processors and their supply chains:
• Have you established measurement and management of pesticides and other chemicals as a strategic priority?
• Have you engaged with or are you monitoring current multi-stakeholder efforts to develop useful metrics?
• When Wal-Mart begins to ask questions about pesticide use and reduction goals for the products you sell in their stores, will you be prepared with a meaningful response?
(Disclosure: I participate in Wal-Mart's Chemical Inputs Subcommittee, serve as a stakeholder reviewer of General Mills' CSR reports, and I provided technical assistance to the investors who filed the shareholder resolution on pesticide use reduction at McDonald's.)

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website,

Colorado Potato Beetle - Photograph by Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service,