Presentation on Food Safety at the National IPM Forum 1992

Presentation by Roger Blobaum, Blobaum and Associates, At The National IPM Forum, Washington, D.C., June 19, 1992

I appreciate very much the opportunity to participate in this forum. I am impressed by the amount of preparatory work that was done. I have been part of a national food safety dialogue the last two years and am especially pleased to see several of the participants here. We encountered each other initially in an adversarial setting. I have learned a lot from them about pest management and value them now as professional colleagues and friends.

I was surprised at how many speakers the first day felt compelled to declare that our food supply is safe. Most Americans don’t believe that. They have lost confidence in the federal government’s ability, and its willingness to do what is necessary, to protect the environment and to provide a food safety guarantee.

Public frustration and anxiety, documented in polls and surveys, helps account for continuing concern about pest management policies and for the appeal and political militancy of consumer and environmental groups. It also helps account for the unusual political situation shaping up in this election year. The questioning of government is not a fad or an aberration, as some in high places contend. The public concern we read about is reinforced by almost daily reports of environmental outrages and official inaction.

I come from Iowa where most people shy away form controversy and the public is slow to show its anger. But people are upset by news stories like the one a year ago in the Des Moines Register that began with a one-sentence lead that read, “It’s raining Atrazine in Iowa.” And they are dismayed by the “nitrogen alert” days announced when farm chemical levels get too high in the Des Moines River, the drinking water source for Des Moines and other cities.

Things like this, which happen all over the country, are focusing public attention on farming practices in particular and agriculture in general. Some who advocate ecological farming methods, and I am one of them, favor incentives and other voluntary approaches that will help farmers make the transition to more environmentally-benign practices. Others, and I think the number is growing, feel tougher regulations are the only solution.

This situation creates an unusual opening for the IPM community to re-dedicate itself and begin leading agriculture in a different direction. It is time for USDA and EPA to make a commitment to IPM, to remove barriers to adoption, and to fight for the funding and other support needed to make this happen. It’s time for EPA to become pro-active and to begin advocating ecologically-sound farming. I do not agree with Bill Reilly that Rachel Carson would be pleased if she could see how well we are doing today. And it’s time for USDA to get off the chemical bandwagon and advocate policies that will make IPM and the whole range of sustainable agriculture practices a genuine option for farmers. USDA’s mission statement does not provide the basis for its bias against ecological agriculture. And it appears to me that EPA’s mission statement requires a commitment to environmentally benign farming.

I want to take this opportunity to challenge all of you to consider some steps, things beyond the resolutions we voted on this morning, that I feel would help you gain the public recognition and support you need to realize IPM’s full potential.

1. I challenge you to reject the assumption that pesticides are an essential food production input As a section of the discussion papers points out, pest management is tacitly defined first and foremost as a chemical-based process. Changing that, among other things, would remove the basis for the bias against non-chemical approaches that is written into USDA policies and practices. The Farm and Home Plan portion of the Farmers Home Administration agreement with farm borrowers, for example, specifies pesticide application as a key management practice. This plan may be written during negotiations between the borrower and the county committee or it may be prepared entirely by Farmers Home personnel.

The growing number of highly-productive farmers who have phased out pesticides in their operations should be rewarded, not discriminated against, by public agencies. Farmers who don’t use pesticides have complained about Farmers Home and public lender discrimination for years. It is time to put a stop to this and all similar pro-chemical practices and policies.

2. I challenge you to acknowledge and learn from the whole farm systems approaches used by thousands of organic farmers in this country. The highly-sophisticated and management-intensive systems they have developed and demonstrated provide the model for the farms of the 21 st Century. This technology, transferred so far primarily from farmer to farmer, is almost universally ignored by researchers and policymakers who presumably are searching for more ecologically sound methods.

It was pointed out yesterday that IPM gets less funding than the cost of bringing one new pesticide to market Organic research gets less funding than EPA and USDA are spending on this forum. Congress wrote the Organic Food Act into the 1990 farm bill, giving organic farmers some long-overdue official standing. But it stripped the legislation of the title that would have authorized an organic research program.

Many believe our public agencies and agricultural institutions have become too ideological. They feel the spirit of inquiry into the public research arena has been replaced by a spirit of justification of the status quo. Environmentalists and others in the public interest community are often accused by farm policymakers of trying to impose their ideology on agriculture. We see the situation as exactly the reverse.

At least one organic farmer should have been included on every constraint resolutions team and every commodity team for this forum and one of the many outstanding organic farmers in this country should have been included among the speakers. EPA in particular should be encouraging and tapping this farmer-generated technology. I’m sure Rachel Carson would like that

3. I challenge you to adopt a goal of a 50% cut in synthetic pesticide use in five years and a 90% phase-out in 10. The material developed by the commodity teams, and studies like NRDC’s Harvest of Hope, strongly suggests these goals are achievable. Campaigns in Sweden, Indonesia and the Netherlands clearly show cutbacks of this kind can be made.

If the IPM community cannot bring itself to set pesticide cutback goals, it does not deserve the political support of environmentalists or the general public. Many of your critics have long contended that IPM really stands for Integrated Pesticide Management I know some of you personally and others by reputation, and know about your work and dedication, and I don’t share that view. Many in the environmental community feel you are in bed with the chemical companies. I understand that some in the chemical industry feel you are in bed with us. Most of you, I’m sure, would deny either claim is true.

I would suggest that it is time for you to respond more aggressively to public concerns and the situation in agriculture and give those of us who advocate an ecologically sound agriculture better reasons to embrace your approach and support your work.

4. I challenge you to reach out to consumer, environmental, citizen and similar groups and engage them in real dialogue and solicit their input I have the impression that the IPM community is in a cocoon as far as exchanges with potential supporters or with the general public is concerned.

I have been involved in several dialogue situations because I feel the relationship between farmers, consumers, and environmentalists has been far too adversarial. I have found increasing interest among public interest people I work with, especially since the Alar episode, in finding ways to try to talk things out with people who have a different perspective. Unfortunately I don’t find much interest in this in many important sectors of agriculture.

A retired dean of agriculture at a land grant school came by recently to talk about dialogue. He was preparing a report on the extent to which consumers and environmentalists and farm and commodity group people get together and have an honest exchange of views.

Recently I had a letter from him reporting on what he was finding out He said he had found people who were urging the farm community to engage in continuing dialogue with non-farm representatives. But thus far, he wrote, I would have to conclude that any meaningful dialogue is not occurring.

We need these exchanges because the political scene is changing. I want to share with you a brief description of this change from a recent report issued by the National Council of State Legislatures:

“Agriculture is no longer the dominant interest group influencing farm policy. Its representatives must now vie with more powerful constituencies of consumers, environmentalists, urban interests, and others for primacy over what traditionally has been agricultural policymaking.’,

“In short, agricultural policy is being transformed to incorporate additional goals of resource conservation, environmental and health protection, and sustenance of family farms and rural communities as explicit social objectives.”

Ecological agriculture is increasingly viewed by consumer, environmental, and similar groups as an approach that meets these objectives. The coalition that convinced Congress to authorize several new sustainable agriculture initiatives in 1990 will be even larger, and more organized and committed, when 1995 rolls around unless we see real movement away from pesticide dependence in agriculture. Preliminary coalition work on the 1995 farm bill is already underway. I would urge you to consider this important political realignment, and to respond to it, as you look to 1995 and beyond.

5. I challenge you to become more politically active in fighting against barriers to adoption of environmentally benign farming practices and in seeking funds for IPM research and extension. You can’t rely on osmosis to convince beleaguered appropriation committee members that they should support you. Public support for research is critical to IPM, which is information rather than product driven, and it seems to me that you need to do more to line up allies and public support.

IPM has been on the scene for 30 years or so and it still lacks the public visibility and political support needed to do the job. It is ridiculous to be spending $8.2 billion in this decade for boondoggles like the superconducting super collider and many billions more for a space station while IPM, and initiatives like the LISA program, struggle to stay alive. I would urge you to begin identifying with, and fighting for, a transition to ecological agriculture. The sustainable agriculture train is beginning to move and the IPM community needs to decide whether to come aboard or to let it leave without you.

6. I challenge you to support the new resource accounting approach that account for the first time for health and environmental costs of fanning and the deterioration of agriculture’s resource base. The public is beginning to insist on placing a monetary value on these externalities and on finding ways to give a credit to farmers who use ecologically sound methods.

It was noted in several instances in the discussion papers that the impact of removing a constraint to IPM would result in higher food costs to consumers. The fact is that what consumers pay at the supermarket does not reflect the real cost of food. The externalities are paid for by consumers, or will be later by our children and grandchildren. But these costs do not show up at the supermarket or in the reports that purport to show the cost of production.

Preliminary studies strongly suggest that full recognition of all costs and benefits (and getting agricultural economists to stop cooking the books) will help strengthen the case for IPM and ecological farming methods in general.

I have been actively involved the last few months at the United Nations in New York and in Brazil in the Earth Summit process, where strong commitments to both IPM and sustainable agriculture were made. I worked with environmentalists from 50 countries or more and I can assure you that growing support for ecological farming methods is worldwide. The UN Development Fund, in fact, releases a report in Rio that makes a strong case for increased support for organic agriculture.

We have entered into a new era that involves a transition from chemical to biological agriculture. The real question for the IPM community to consider today, and for USDA and EPA as well, is whether you are going to lead or whether you are going to follow. Those of us who advocate this inevitable change in direction hope you make the right choke.


R. Blobaum, speech given at The National IPM Forum, Washington, D.C., June 19, 1992

Mr. Blobabum was the national director of Americans for Safe Food from 1989 to 1992. Americans for Safe Food was a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization. His work included organizing annual national organic/sustainable agricultural conferences in Washington, organic and sustainable agricultural initiatives in 12 states, and helping shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it thorough Congress.