Major players in the potato industry are increasingly promoting sustainable pest management solutions—but many growers are already ahead of the curve.
There are signs on the horizon that major players in the potato industry are increasing their investment in sustainable pest management solutions.
Case in point is McDonald’s Corporation’s response to a shareholder request in 2008 to discover methods of reducing pest control products in their potato supply: McDonald’s approached McCain Foods, Lamb Weston and Simplot and asked them to participate in the implementation of an integrated pest management/integrated crop management survey at the grower level. The survey is intended both as an evaluation of existing IPM standards and a teaching tool that puts positive emphasis on the use of complex IPM strategies.
Growers taking the survey are asked to respond to 172 questions on their pest and disease management practices, and based on the level of complexity of their practices are then grouped into the categories “basic,” “steward,” “expert” or “master.” The results of the published survey are then published online. The tally for Canada in 2011, so far, identifies over 95 per cent of growers as “basic,” over 85 per cent as “steward,” over 65 per cent as “expert,” and a little over 40 per cent as “master.”
According to Yves Leclerc, director of agronomy for McCain Canada, the survey is “a joint effort between the processors, their customers and the grower organizations within the U.S. and Canada,” which aims to give growers a means to benchmark their own progress in IPM strategies—and not just processing growers. “We wanted it to be a tool used by the entire industry.
“A lot of the questions are on the level of practices themselves, the complexity of the practices,” Leclerc explains. “An example of a more complex practice could be that the grower uses biological control of insects. We’d see that as a higher-level practice than strictly using a chemical component.
“The idea is to promote IPM, for growers to use all the tools available to fight pests and diseases as sustainably as possible, and hopefully use products more judiciously.”
Another project McCain is developing is a new decision support system for late blight, involving the use of spore traps as well as forecasting models. The project aims to allow growers to make pest management decisions proactively rather than reacting to a pest outbreak, based on current forecasting models instead of using outdated information such as past weather models.
IPM involves accurate pest identification, monitoring and identification of action thresholds as well as management practices. In an IPM strategy, growers employ the necessary strategies at the right time to keep pests at manageable levels, whether they are disease, insects or weeds.
David Wattie, an expert in Integrated Pest Management at the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries, says interest in IPM is increasing across the board—government-sponsored projects such as his own are ongoing, but in recent years processing customers have also increased investment in sustainable cultivation solutions. “In part, restaurant chains are responding to consumers wanting to know more about their food,” he says. “We work with McCain quite a lot with respect to areas of research, developing programs for growers.”
According to Wattie, there are incentives for growers who follow best management practices, but many of these are the natural result of strong IPM practices rather than incentives from the companies that buy the potatoes. And on the whole, growers are fully aware of the benefits of IPM.
One of the main benefits is an overall reduction in growers’ reliance on pest control products. “To stay in business growers have to make money, and they’ll do that by reducing their reliance on expensive inputs,” says Wattie.
Wattie does a lot of work developing IPM strategies for late blight. One of the most effective means of controlling a difficult pest like late blight, he says, is timing. “Especially in the case of late blight, the pesticides do not necessarily kill the organism, but they disrupt the life cycle of the organism, so timing is important,” he says. “You need to have the chemicals in place to protect the plant ahead of the pathogen’s attack.”
The sustainable approach, according to Wattie, means growers need to use the right products at the right time. “Pesticides are expensive—growers don’t want to use them if they don’t have to. If you understand that particular products have particular uses, you don’t have to use a lot of it if you use it at the right time.”
IPM necessarily involves both cultural practices as well as the use of pest control products. The Department of Agriculture, Wattie says, has recently established weather stations on 35 farms in the upper St. John River Valley. The information from each weather station is posted hourly to the database, verified and posted on the website daily. The department also posts information collected from yellow pan traps and suction traps weekly on the website. User hits have been up on both sites, says Wattie.
“There are still some growers who have yet to buy into the idea of understanding the biology of pests for timing pest control at certain times,” he says. “We have a lot of converts to that but still have some preaching to do.”
The ideal IPM toolbox contains many compartments; growers must always adapt strategies to the conditions on their own operations. But there are some strategies that are advisable for every grower.
The first and best practice, according to Dave Bell, a New Brunswick-based agronomist, is to plant healthy seed—“the best seed you can afford.” Another key practice is regular scouting. “The farm owner has to train his staff so that no matter what farm activity is happening, whether tillage or spraying or cleaning up roads, the staff is aware of what they’re looking for,” says Bell. “Careful observation is number one.
“The next thing is being aware of the level of insects you can tolerate, and the level at which you should do something about it. That depends on your crop—seed crop, processing, they’ll all be different—be aware of what your economic action thresholds are,” he says.
Bell recommends rigorous, careful scouting as the best means of controlling insect pests such as the European corn borer, a major problem for Maritime growers. “By the time you see the damage it’s too late,” he says. “It’s one that has to be scouted in the very early stages, the egg-laying stage for instance—three to four weeks prior to ever seeing any damage. It requires looking for very small egg masses. They lay them in groups up to a centimetre or so across.”
Although Bell recommends these strategies in general, he is quick to assert that many growers observe excellent IPM practices. Many growers have implemented water management strategies involving terracing and drainage, as well as soil nutrient management involving grid sampling and variable lime application, and the practice of multi-year crop rotation.
“I don’t think growers have the reputation of being really good environmental stewards, but I think that’s wrong,” he says. “They’re working really hard at IPM methods, and they’re increasing those [methods] every year.
“With IPM you eliminate the unnecessary use of pesticides, and growers have very much bought into that. If they can stretch application of a fungicide from seven to nine days and they have that information to back that up, they will do it. They will adopt the cultural practices [that are] necessary.”
However, while most IPM practices show a cost benefit over the long term, they can be expensive in the short term—which highlights a continuing opportunity for major players to show their support.