Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a method of managing pests that's widely recognized as more economical and better for the environment. By reducing the use of synthetic pesticides while controlling costs, IPM has become an agricultural standard worldwide.
What makes this type of pest management "integrated" is it's combined use of chemical, biological, mechanical and other means of controlling pests like insects, birds, rodents, weeds, mold and fungi. But how does IPM work -- and is it really effective?
IPM: The Basics
Integrated pest management isn't one simple cookbook recipe for controlling pests; instead, IPM relies on common-sense practices that vary from place to place, from time to time, and from one type of pest to another.
According to the EPA, there are four general steps to IPM:
Set Action Thresholds: Seeing one bug shouldn't necessarily set off a massive pesticide spraying program. Instead, IPM encourages people to set some kind of threshold for taking action. Only after a certain number of pests are seen for a certain length of time should steps be taken to control their populations.
Zero tolerance for pests, then, is not the goal of IPM, and farmers should realistically expect the loss of some crops to pests. In the case of agriculture, economics will usually determine how action thresholds are set; in other settings, health issues may be the primary factor that establishes action thresholds.
Monitor and Identify Pests: Tolerating the presence of some pests isn't the same as ignoring them, and IPM encourages people to keep a watchful eye on areas where pests may become a problem. If pests are seen, it's also important to identify them accurately so that any pest-management procedures are targeted to the pests that are present, while allowing beneficial organisms to live.
Prevention: Perhaps the most common-sense method of pest control is to prevent them in the first place. Inside a home, this would mean sealing holes and other gaps in floorboards, window screens and other places, and eliminating sources of food or water that pests rely on. Mosquitoes, for example, need standing water to breed, so getting rid of any sources of standing water is an easy way to control mosquito populations.
Farmers can use the same principle to prevent agricultural pests. Rotating between different field crops, changing irrigation practices to use less water, choosing pest-resistant varieties of crops, and planting pest-free rootstock will prevent pests from infesting farmland.
Control: If it's determined that pest control action is needed, there are a number of alternatives available. The least risky control methods -- hand-picking, screening, trapping, weeding or tilling the soil -- are used first in IPM. Some biological methods, like spraying pheromones, using biological insecticides, or introducing sterile males into a pest population, are also available in many cases.
As a last resort, synthetic pesticides are used in IPM, and even then their use is limited. Ideally, pests will be targeted with as much precision as possible, and pesticides will be used at the correct time in the pest's life cycle, e.g., before eggs have hatched. Only when all else fails is broadcast spraying of broad-spectrum, non-specific pesticides used in IPM.
Is IPM the Same as Organic?
In a word, no. Most of the principles involved in IPM are also used in growing organic food, but organic farmers stop short of using synthetic pesticides. (Note that some biological and other pesticides are allowed in organic agriculture.)
Currently, there is no nationally accepted, standardized way to identify or label food that's grown using IPM techniques, though some local growers label their food as "IPM-Grown." The lack of a universal standard is partly due to the fact that IPM techniques can very widely from region to region and from crop to crop.
How Effective Is IPM?
In a word, very. Test after test has shown that IPM not only reduces pest populations, it also does so safely and at lower cost than pesticide use and other non-IPM practices.
The NRDC, for example, reports that in apartments with serious infestations of cockroaches, using IPM was far more effective than conventional methods, which sometimes were ineffective at controlling large cockroach infestation.
They also found it was far more cost-effective: The costs of using IPM at a site in New York City was equal to or lower than the traditional sprays used in pest control, and IPM was much more effective at eliminating cockroach infestations.