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Dollars and Sense: The Economic Benefits of Reducing Pesticide Use

By Loretta Brenner

Statement. "Modem pesticides have ... made fruits and vegetables enormously cheap, and in general the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the better your health. Pesticides are improving public health and saving rives because they lower the cost of food. "

Response: As anyone who has shopped for organically grown food knows, it often carries a premium price. The reasons for this are varied, but often have to do with supply and demand, economies of scale, and the costs of making a transition from conventional to organic practices. Most studies that have been clone of agricultural economics show that reducing or eliminating pesticide use saves money for farmers and the society at large. --Ed.

Proponents of pesticide use have predicted that eliminating agricultural pesticides would seriously decrease crop yields, cost farmers their livelihood, and drastically increase food prices.2 Due to their reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, conventional agricultural systems may suffer yield losses with a total elimination of pesticides. But if we include the environmental and social costs of pesticide use, the economic benefits gained by reducing our dependence on pesticides are considerable.

Reducing Pesticide Use by 50 Percent

Synthetic pesticide use has increased 33 fold in the U.S since 1945. Despite a tenfold increase in amount and toxicity of synthetic insecticides used, crop yield reductions due to insects has nearly doubled in the lest 40 years. The increase in crop loss can be explained by several factors: pesticide resistance, outbreaks of secondary pests, increasing crop monocultures, planting susceptible varieties, reducing crop rotations and tillage, and growing crops in areas where they are more susceptible to pest attack.3

To quantify the costs of pesticide treatment and crop losses due to pests for 40 major U.S. agricultural crops, Dr. David Pimentel and his associates at Cornell University examined U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on current crop losses, reviewed crop loss data from experiments, and consulted pest control specialists.3

By implementing available biological, cultural, and environmental pest control strategies, Pimentel concluded that the use of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides could be reduced 50 percent without reductions in yield. The additional costs of alternative controls ranged from a reduction of $10 per hectare to an increase of $15 per hectare.3 (See Figure 1.)

Currently 4.1 billion dollars is spent for 320 million kilograms of pesticides; if pesticide use was decreased by 50 percent, without a decline in yields, the additional costs of alternative controls would be $1.0 billion. With an increase in pest control costs of 25 percent, total food production costs would increase only 0.6 percent.3

The increase in food production costs from using alternative pest control techniques would be more than offset, however, through a reduction in the indirect costs of pesticide use that comes from environmental degradation, human poisonings and health risks, and government regulations, pest resistance, and losses of pollinators. Current estimates of the environmental and social costs of pesticide use total approximately eight billion dollars annually.3,4

IPM: The First Step

During the past two decades, integrated pest management (IPM)programs have reduced pest control costs and pesticide applications in fruit, vegetable, and field crops. (See Table 1.) In all of these IPM programs monitoring pest populations and crop injury was used to determine the need and timing for pest suppression treatments. Monitoring or scouting increases pest control costs by $2 to $25 per acre, 33 but monitoring usually reduces pesticide applications and provides a substantial return for each dollar spent. For example, the average cost of monitoring pear orchards in southern Oregon is $20 per acre, but pest control costs with an IPM program average $160 to $200 per acre, compared to $450 or more for a conventional program.6 - In a review of California's IPM programs from 1980 to 1990, out of 157 IPM projects, 36 percent reduced pesticide use, 23 percent had no effect, and in 30 percent the effects on pesticide use were unknown.7

Reductions in pest control costs and pesticide use in IPM programs can be achieved by introducing or increasing populations of naturel enemies, variety selection, cultural controls, applying alternative pesticides, and improving timing of pest suppression treatments. Although the IPM programs listed in Table 1 did reduce pesticide use, most of the programs still relied heavily on pesticides.

In an IPM program, pest suppression treatments are made only if the pest or pest complex will cause unacceptable economic or aesthetic damage.8 Pest control programs that do nothing more than juggle the combinations, numbers, or types of pesticides, but are labelled "IPM? weaken the impact that truly integrated programs can have on reducing pesticide use. For IPM programs to significantly reduce the use of conventional pesticides, conventional pesticides should be used only as the lest resort when other management techniques such as biological controls, resistant varieties, or cultural controls are inadequate.9

Alternative Agriculture Decreases Pesticide Use

Alternative farming systems go further than most IPM programs in reducing pesticide inputs. Many comparisons have been made between conventional and alternative agricultural systems. In general, yields from alternative production systems are longer than yields from comparable conventional farms. In many of these studies, however, the net income from alternative practices is equal to or greater than the net income from conventional practices due to longer production costs in the alternative systems. Crop yields tend to increase after the transition from conventional to alternative is completed.19

A study in the Palouse region of Washington compared a conventional rotation oŁ wheat, barley, and peas to an alternative system of wheat and peas that included a legume cover crop in the rotation. Compared to the conventional system, alternative systems reduced herbicide treatments from eight to two, and fungicide treatments were reduced from two to zero. One insecticide treatment was applied in both systems. Net returns for the alternative system were higher, and pest control costs were reduced.

Farm Policy, Pesticide Use, and Environmental Accounting

Other comparative studies contend that alternative farming systems are less profitable than their conventional counterparts. Although in some cases crop production is longer or expenditures are higher with the alternative systems; the apparent longer profitability may be a reflection of national farm policies that penalize alternative agricultural practices. 22

Alternative farming practices rely on crop rotations that maintain soil fertility, reduce pests, and lessen erosion, but often are ineligible for price and income supports, or have low economic value. Current commodity support programs favor conventional cropping systems because growers are penalized when acrea~e is shifted out of the supported crop.20,22

Ninety percent of US. corn acreage, and 86 percent of wheat acreage was covered by commodity support programs in 1988.23,24 Payments cost tax payers twelve billion dollars per year, with most benefits going to producers with net incomes over $100,000.25

The 1990 farm bill includes a positive policy change. The Integrated Farm Management Program Option (IFMO), is available to farmers who implement plans to protect water quality, conserve soil, and plant at least 20 percent of their program acreage to conservation crops. The farmers receive federal payments as if they had planted one of the original program crops. Currently, USDA is at tempting to reduce the total enrollments to a fraction of the acreage intended by Congress, a step that would limit grower participation, and weaken the original intent of the bill.26

Case Study: Environmental Costs and Farm Policy Options

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a policy research center, compared profitability of conventional and alternative farming using a range of policy options while taking into account the costs of soil erosion and nutrient depletion.20 Production costs, environmental costs, and net economic returns were determined for several crop rotations (conventional and organic) in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. In Nebraska, deep soils and flat topography limit soil erosion and runoff, but the shallow soils and steep hillsides of Pennsylvania increase the potential for environmental damage.

In Pennsylvania, organic farming rotations were economically and environmentally superior to conventional systems of continuous corn or corn soybean rotations. Production costs were cut by 25 percent (from $1000 to $750 per acre), pesticides and inorganic fertilizers were eliminated, and soil erosion was decreased by over 50 percent. Reducing erosion and improving infiltration also reduced the costs of "off-site" damages (sediment pollution, agricultural chemical pollution and wildlife habitat degradation).

Using traditional farm policies and accounting for environmental costs, the net economic value of the alternative crop system was $345 per acre, compared to a $61 loss for the conventional corn-soybean rotation. Using a conservation policy similar to the IFMO, the net economic value of conventional corn-soybeans was an overall decrease of $191 per acre, compared to a gain of $315 per acre with the alternative rotations.

In the Nebraska case study, organic corn-soybean rotations reduced soil erosion by 20 percent compared to a chemical intensive corn-soybean rotation, and 50 percent compared to continuous corn. Production costs were also reduced. Potential for on-farm and off-site environmental damage is longer in Nebraska, so net economic gains from organic systems were not as dramatic as in the Pennsylvania study.

In both states all crop rotations studied, conventional or organic, proved to be more profitable than continuous corn

More Economic benefits

Some economic benefits of pesticide reduction are not readily quantified but deserve mention. Energy consumption has been shown to be longer in alternative agricultural systems, because synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used. Organic farms required two-fifths as much fossil energy as did conventional farms to produce one dollar's worth of crop in One Midwest study.28

Pesticides are considered profitable because of a $3 to $4 return per dollar invested. Alternative controls, how ever, show an equal or better rate of return. For example, an almond IPM program predicted an annual return on the research investment of $2.80 to.$3.70.29 For biological control, returns of $30 to $100 per dollar invested in research have been achieved. Improving crop resistance to insects or pathogens provided a $300 return per research dollar invested.30 These lever of returns justify increasing federal and state funding for alternative agricultural research. Funding for the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, increased by more than 50 percent to $6.7 million in 1991, but this reflects a small portion of the total federal agriculture research budget.


Reducing pesticide use can provide growers with direct economic benefits by decreasing the cost of inputs and increasing net returns. Some alternative methods may be more costly than conventional chemical-intensive agricultural practices, but often these comparisons fail to account for the high environmental and social costs of pesticide use. The economic and environmental. impact of our farm policies on pesticide reduction also deserves scrutiny and policies that encourage adoption of ecologically sound farming practices need to be implemented. The importance of including environmental costs in comparative studies of conventional and alternative systems-is best summarized by the World Resources Institute: "...[I]f naturel resource impacts are not compared, then the primary justification for sustainable agriculture will have been overlooked.

References :

1.Moseley, Bruce. 1991. Interview: Bruce 21 Ames. Omni 13(5):75-80, 103, 106.

2.Knutson, RD. et al. 1990. Economic impacts of reduced chemical use. College Station, TX: Knutson and Associates.

3.Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Environmental and economic impacts of reducing U.S. agricultural pesticide use. In Pimentel, D. and A.A. Hanson (eds.). CRC handbook of pest management in agriculture, 2nd edition, Volume 1. Boca Raton, PL CRC Press, Inc.

4. Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Environmental and social cost of pesticides. Draft manuscript.

5. Peterson, C. 1991. The natural. Oregon's Agricultural Progress. (Fall/Winter): 27-30.

6. Westigard, P., Southern Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. Personal communication. May, 1991.

7. Grieshop, J.l. and R.A. Pence. 1990. Research results: Statewide IPM's first 10 years. California Agriculture 44(5): 24-26.

8. Olkowski, W., H. Olkowski, and S. Daar. 1988. What is IPM? Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly 4(3): 9-16.

9. Prokopy, RJ., et al. 1990. Transitional step toward second-stage integrated management of arthropod pests of apple in Massachusetts orchards. I. Econ. Entomol. 83(6):2405-2410.

10. McKinney, T.R. 1987. Comparison of organic and conventional agriculture: A literature review. Snowmass, CO: Rocky Mountain Institute.

11. Cacek, T. and LL Langner. 1986. The economic implications of organic farming. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 1(1):25-29.

12. Wolf, R. (ed.). 1977. Organic farming: Yesterday's and tomorrow''s agriculture. 'Emmaus, PA Rodale Press.

13. Price, P. and W. Umino. 1985. The leaching fields: A nonpoint threat to groundwater. Sacramento, CA: California Legislature, Assembly Office of Research.

14. Lockeretz, W. 1989. Comparative local economic benefits of conventional and alternative cropping systems. Amer. Jour.of Alt. Agri 4(2): 75-83.

15. Dobbs, T.L, M.C. Leddy, and J.D. Smolik. 1988. Factors Influencing the economic potential for alternative fanning systems: Case analyses in South Dakota. Amer. Jour. of Alt. Agri. 3(1): 2~34.

16. Goldstein, W.A. and D.L. Young. 1987. An agronomic and economic comparison of a conventional and a low-input cropping system in the Palouse. Amer. Jour. of Alt. Agri. 2(;~): 51 56.

17. Helmers, C.A., M.R Langemeier, and J. Atwood. 1986. An economic analysis of alternative cropping systems for east-central Nebraska. Amer. Jour. of Alt Agri. 1(4): 153158.

18. Lockeretz, W., et al. 1978. Field crop production on organic farms in the Midwest. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 33: 13~134.

19. Roberts, K.J., P.F. Warnken, and K.C. Schneeberger. 1979. The economics of organic crop production in the western Corn Belt. Agricultural Economics Paper No. 19794. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri. Cited in reference #10.

20. Faeth, P. et al. 1991. Paying the farm bill: US agricultural policy and the transition to Sustainable agriculture. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.

21.Crosson, P. and J.E. Ostrov. 1990. Sorting out the environmental benefits of alternative agriculture. Jour. of Soil and Water Conservation. 45(1):3441.

22. National Research Council, Board on Agri. culture, Committee on the Role of Alternative Farming Methods in Modem Production Agriculture. 1989. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

23. Mercier, S. 1989. Corn Background for 1990 farm legislation. Report No. AGES 8947. Washington, D.C.: USDA, Economic Research Service, Commodity Economics Division. Cited in reference #19.

24. Harwood, J.L. and C.E. Young. 1989. Wheat: Back~pound for 1990 farm legislation. Report No. AGES 89~56. Washington, D.C.: USDA, Economic Research Service Commodity Economics Division. Cited in reference #19.

25. Shaeffer, J.D. and Whittaker, G.W. 1990. Average farm incomes: They're highest among farmers receiving the largest direct government payments. Choices (Second Quarter): 30-31. Cited in reference #19.

26. Center for Rural Affairs. l99l. Update. Hartington, NB.

27. Kraten, S.L 1979. A preliminary examination of the economic performance and energy intensiveness of organic and conventional small grain farms in the Northwest. M.A. Thesis, Washington State University.

28. Lockeretz, W., G. Shearer, and D.H. Kohl. 1981. Organic farming in the Corn Belt. Science 211 (6): 540-547.

29. Headley, J.C. and M.J. Hoy. 1987. Benefit cost analysis of an integrated mite management program for almonds. Forum. 1 Econ Entomol 80:555-559.

30. Pimentel, D. 1986. Agroecology and economics. In Kogan, M. (ed.) Ecological theory and integrated pest management practice. New York NY: John Wiley & Sons.

31. Curtis, J., L. Mott, and T. Kuhnle. 1991. Harvest of hope: The potential for alternative agriculture to reduce pesticide use. New York, NY: National Resources Defense Council.

Citation for this article: Brenner, Loretta. 1991, " Dollars and Sense : The economic benefits of reducing pesticide use". Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp.18 - 20.

Copyright © 1991 Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Reprinted with permission.

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