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Farming Practices 101, Part 2: IPM vs. sustainable agriculture

The term “sustainable agriculture” was first coined by Wes Jackson in his 1980 book, New Roots for Agriculture, but the term didn’t become popular until the late 1980s (Kirschenmann). Even before the 1980s, some agricultural specialists were promoting alternatives to what was becoming an increasingly industrialized farming system, but those alternatives varied greatly in focus.

In order to provide funding for sustainable farmers, the U.S. government needed a definition. In 1990, that definition became Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1683: “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

In a nutshell, “sustainable agriculture” includes farming practices that conserve environmental and financial resources and improve the quality of life for the community. Like IPM, sustainable agriculture has endured a myriad of definitions and in some instances has been so vague that consumers do not understand what a “sustainable” farming product is. And like IPM, sustainable farming tries to limit the input of chemical interventions by working with the biology of the crop and pest.

I include “sustainable agriculture” in quotes because in this post, I’m referring to the entire term. Any type of farming practice, as long as it can be maintained for the long-term, is sustainable. Prescribed pesticide sprays can be sustainable if they involve “reduced-risk” pesticides that are not as caustic to the environment and are inexpensive enough for the farmer to afford, as long as pesticide resistance does not build up. IPM is by its nature sustainable, since the pest control methods change to meet the need. Organic agriculture can be sustainable, as long as the grower does not encounter pests that exceed his or her ability to manage them and organic pesticides are used judiciously.

In terms of pest management, sustainable ag farmers typically use IPM. Sustainable agriculture as a philosophy, however, goes beyond the pest management focus, whereas IPM focuses on primarily on insect, disease and weed management. Sustainable agriculture involves the entire farming system, from stewardship of the land itself to the humane treatment of animals and farm workers to economic independence. Sustainable farmers seek to preserve soil life, so many of them choose their practices based on whether it will make the soil habitable for crops. For instance, farmers would use cover crops and low tillage to add nutrients, conserve soil moisture and keep the soil healthy in general.

IPM and sustainable agriculture use very similar techniques for pest management. Both avoid “magic bullet” solutions to pests and instead use a combination of strategies, including biological, cultural and chemical controls. Farmers who practice sustainable farming and IPM identify the pest species and learn about its life cycle and ecology before using a chemical pesticide. Both also try to prevent pest entry into the crop area by using cultural practices like cover crops and planting other plants attractive to predator insects.

Sustainable practices conserve the soil (through no or low tillage), water (through cover crops or mulches) and “predator” insects – also called “biological control” (such as aphids or ladybugs) so that the control practices work with the environment and not against it. Sustainable farmers, for instance, would not try to grow spinach, a crop that needs copious amounts of water and cool weather, in a desert.

Weed control practices would differ between the IPM farmer and the sustainable farmer. The IPM toolbox includes herbicides, so a farmer who has had annual trouble with pigweed, for instance, could use a multi-tactic weed control program that includes herbicides along with other practices such as cover crops and allelopathic plants. Allelopathic plants are plants that emit chemicals that can be toxic to other plants and suppress seed germination – this is another form of “biological control”, and may be used by both the IPM farmer and the sustainable ag farmer.

Because the sustainable ag farmer wants to preserve soil health, s/he would be very careful about the type of weed control used. Herbicides often give quick results, but some of them can persist in the soil. Others, if used exclusively, can promote resistance. Allelopathic plants would need to be chosen carefully to prevent any interaction with future crops, as some of the chemicals can remain in the soil for years (UF Extension publication).

In summary, both IPM and sustainable agricultural practices require forethought and knowledge of the growing environment. In both cases, farmers are trying to use the best method possible for each particular situation rather than just using a generic pest control program that may not be appropriate for the pest.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the similarities and differences between organic agriculture and IPM and sustainable agriculture.


What is Sustainable Agriculture? Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education website.

Sustainable Table, Introduction to sustainability.

ATTRA, What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Ferguson, J.J., and Rathinasabapath, B. (2009). Allelopathy: How plants suppress other plants. Extension publication #HS944

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