What’s more sustainable than organic agriculture? Meet IPM

IPM, a holistic approach to managing pests, has the potential to change how we grow food on farms in rural and urban areas.

IPM, a holistic approach to managing pests, has the potential to change how we grow food on farms in rural and urban areas.

A decades-old method of sustainable agriculture may be making its way back into the mainstream, challenging organic agriculture as the leading sustainable agriculture strategy.

Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, is a holistic, systems approach to long-term management of pests in an agricultural, urban, or wild setting. Although it’s nothing new, some experts are very optimistic about the potential of IPM in creating a more sustainable food system.  “If [IPM] principles were embraced on a widespread scale,” says Mark Bomford, the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, “we’d see a food production system that would measure up as having a far lighter load on the environment than if certified organic agriculture were adopted to the same scale.”

Fighting pests by targeting how they thrive and fail

The University of California, one of the universities studying the potential of this approach, explains how IPM seeks to manage the entire agroecosystem, instead of merely attacking pests directly. Its website states, “Rather than simply eliminating the pests you see right now, using IPM means you’ll look at environmental factors that affect the pest and its ability to thrive. Armed with this information, you can create conditions that are unfavorable for the pest.”

The specific methods used in integrated pest management include the use of natural enemies against pests, the implementation of practices that make it difficult for a pest to become established and spread, physical barriers like nets and traps, and, eventually, pesticides.

While it allows a role for chemicals, it also makes it easier for conventional farmers to cut down on pesticide use. In fact it’s the ease with which IPM can be widely adopted by farmers large and small that leads experts to believe it may be better for the environment than organic agriculture.

Conveying this more nuanced perspective to consumers is a challenge, however. Perhaps the first step to reaching a larger audience is changing the name “integrated pest management” to something a bit more inspired.

Takeaway: It’s always encouraging to hear of sustainable solutions that make big companies more profitable since that makes it more likely they’ll be adopted. You can support farms using IPM by shopping for this label. You can also avoid using pesticides in your own garden by adopting practices such as mulching and companion planting. We’ll have more information soon in our beginner’s guide to regenerative gardening.

In the meantime, you can watch this space as we continue to add information on growing perennials.