TIPWG newsletter March/April: Integrated Pest Management – rewriting the “we have always done it this way” rule book

Article by Jacqui Meyer 

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) seems to be synonymous with an anti-pesticide sentiment, right? You would be forgiven for agreeing, as the seemingly anti-pesticide stance – “to minimise the use of pesticides” – is clearly stated in the first paragraph introducing the concept of IPM on the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) webpage:

“Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an ecosystem approach to crop production and protection that combines different management strategies and practices to grow healthy crops and minimize the use of pesticides.”

To understand why minimising the use of pesticides was such a key objective in the development of the IPM approach, we need to look at the context in which it was developed.

FAO states that the IPM framework was developed in response to a pest control crisis that saw outbreaks of secondary pest and pest resurgence following the development of pesticide resistance. This came at a time when evidence and awareness of the cost to health and the environment of intensive use of pesticides, was gaining momentum and there were far more pesticides available, many of which have now been prohibited or banned as a result of their potential negative effects to human health, the environment, or both.

While I am certainly not in the anti-pesticide camp if used as per label instructions and carefully selected with due diligence, I can understand why there was a need to “minimise the use of pesticides” at the time. But I also feel that times have changed, and while we are constantly learning about new implications of pesticide use, we have also evolved and adapted our pesticide use significantly since the original IPM objectives were drawn up. Certainly, many of the pesticides used in a forestry context have limited environmental or health implications and the active mitigation of these, be it PPE or buffer zones, is a usage requirement. Furthermore, it should be noted that the impact of not using these pesticides can, in some cases, far outweigh the impact of their use. Here I am thinking about the environmental impact of alien invasive species (AIS) and the risk to human and animal life if firebreaks are not adequately implemented.

The Forestry Industry in South Africa has always taken an IPM approach, although perhaps unwittingly, because for the most part, it just makes sense. Why spend money on labour-intensive, costly inputs when you can improve the health and growth of crops in smarter and less resource-intensive manners such as implementing best practices in the production of seedlings? An example is site-species matching through breeding for specific traits, something the Forestry Industry has a long history of.

It therefore should have been an easy transition when the need to incorporate an IPM framework into forestry management plans for certification purposes came into force. So why has it not been?

Perhaps it is because too much emphasis has been placed on the IPM objective to minimise chemical pesticide usage and not enough on the wider definition of what IPM entails.

FAO defines IPM as:

“The careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment. IPM emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agroecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.”

Here, we are no longer minimising pesticide use, we are keeping pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimise risks to human health and the environment. Economic considerations play a huge role in which pesticides are used, how often they are used and the amounts that are used. South African legislation requires the industry to have in place, health and safety standards and management plans that ensure the risk pesticide use poses to human health is minimised. The same is true for environmental risks. What is more, with over 80% of South African plantations Forest Stewardship Council ® (FSC®) certified, as an Industry we are going above and beyond the basic legal requirements.

Incorporating an IPM framework into daily management practices

To do this, we need to understand what is required from the framework before we can see where it can be incorporated. It is therefore helpful to unpack the definition of IPM:

“The careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimise the risk to human health and the environment.”

There are two aspects to this sentence that will need incorporating into management practices:

  • Careful consideration of all available pest control techniques; and
  • Integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and reduce the need for pesticide use and other interventions.

Both aspects are already being done, to an extent, by the industry. Who, by fulfilling the new FSC Pesticide Policy requirements will probably be doing this to a level that is above and beyond what the initial IPM framework developers envisioned. However, while the industry may be actively undertaking these IPM requirements, are they being thought of as such by the industry and therefore placed within the context of an IPM Framework?

Careful consideration of all available pest control techniques

The need for careful consideration of all available pest control techniques is a central part of the new FSC Pesticide Policy, justifying when a chemical pesticide control pathway has been selected over a physical or biological control method. As a result, there has been a lot of emphasis on incorporating this aspect of the IPM framework into management plans and decision-making processes ahead of the policy coming into force on 1 January 2021.

Integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and reduce the need for pesticide use and other interventions

The integration of appropriate measures, or “preventative measures” that discourage the development of pest populations and thus reduce the need for pesticide use and other interventions, such as site-species matching, steps made to improve plant quality and the improvement of silvicultural practices to improve planting quality and stand management are not new. Preventative measures have been going on since the inception of forestry and will continue until the last tree is felled as it is a necessary aspect of ensuring the viability and productivity of the Sector. It seems, however, that many of the preventative measures that are already in place are being overlooked when it comes to their incorporation of an IPM framework.

An IPM Management Plan

Like it or not, FSC auditors will expect to see IPM management plans, which contain both the justifications regarding the control measure chosen and lists the preventative measures in place and being put into practice, provides the context required for ‘outside’ observer to understand why a certain control measure was opted for. It shows due diligence in the decision-making process and clearly illustrates the integrated approach that has been taken.

Moving forwards

One area that perhaps has not had the attention it requires, is how we future proof this system. The IPM approach is heavily dependent on the generation of knowledge and information that feeds into and informs the decision-making process. Some of this comes directly from the framework itself, in the form of information generated through monitoring. Other information comes from company processes that run parallel to the framework but are not directly part of it, for example, the development of best practices based upon updates to the legislation or industry-wide standard operating procedures. Then there is the information that is sector-driven, often research-based, looking at broader sector-wide issues such a biocontrol applications, research into climate change or alternatives to current registered pesticide.

As an Industry, we need to start considering what will be required to ensure the information, knowledge and research needed for an IPM approach is generated. The FSC Pesticide Policy places a lot of emphasis on monitoring, which will need to be done at both a company and industry level. However, equally important is the information generated at an industry level, for example, the research being conducted into genomic advances, biocontrol and silvicultural practices. As a Sector, our research and development spend is double the national average – something to be proud of – however, is this enough to ensure we maintain the knowledge and technology needed to drive the preventative measures required by the framework? Do we have the sector-wide commitment needed to ensure the continued funding of such research?

Going forward, we must not forget that the IPM framework provides us with many opportunities to deal with a single issue. Yes, innovative R&D will provide new avenues in terms of chemical pesticide products that are less hazardous and more specific. However, the framework pushes us to look at our preventative measures, or cultural control methods with fresh eyes and from a new perspective. It challenges us to ask ourselves what changes we can make in seed collection and storage, rooting of cuttings and tree breeding methodologies? How can we improve our nurseries, the planting and sapling establishment process? Could we consider using a fire-resistant product to prepare tracer belts and burn the fire break on the same day?

This is the true nature of an IPM framework, it’s not about being anti-pesticide, it is about ripping the “we have always done it this way” rule book up and forcing us to think differently. It’s challenging us to look outside of the “this is the way we have done it for 20 years” box and think about how we could tweak the system so it remains productive, but reducing the social and environmental impacts associated with forestry.

When it comes to fulfilling FSC Pesticide Policy requirements stipulating an IPM framework and approach, as an industry we are already ticking most of the boxes. It is just a matter of presenting them in the prescribed framework.

The confusion has come as a result of too much emphasis being placed on minimising pesticides, which has been reinforced by the newly introduced ESRAs which are required solely for chemical pesticide control methods. As a result, the chemical pesticide control aspect of the framework has become the primary focus when implementing an IPM approach, rather than the framework itself.

Right now, my advice would be for certificate holders to ensure both aspects of the approach are covered in their implementation of the IPM framework into management plans. Preventative measures, to ensure optimum plant health and site/species matching, should be as clear as the justification as to why one control measure was opted for over another.

Going forward, we need to use the IPM framework to identify potential knowledge gaps and areas where continued investment at a company or sector-wide level is required and then commit to long-term research and development funding in these areas.

/ Pesticide interest piece