(Beyond Pesticides, September 22, 2009) New pesticide products on the market to combat late-season diseases and pests in chemical-intensive agriculture are causing a surge in crop dusting activities in the Midwest, according to a new investigative report by the Associated Press. The Federal Aviation Administration reports that the number of hours flown by crop dusters was more than 1.4 million in 2007, up about 29% more in 2003.
This increase is linked primarily to chemical-intensive corn and soybean production, which can suffer from fungal diseases such as Asian Soybean Rust (soy) and gray leaf spot (corn). Many are sprayed preemptively; rumors abound that the disease might spread to the Upper Midwest leaves farmers fearing that the fungal diseases will drastically cut their yields. In Iowa the number of licensed crop dusters has increased from about 40 in the 1990’s to about 200 today. In Illinois, the number of pilots has doubled in the past three years to 330, and Wisconsin went from 55 pilots in 2006 to 78 this year.
While the “new chemicals” are not identified in the AP report, Darin Eastburn, a plant pathologist with the University of Illinois, purports that pilots are spraying less chemicals now than they were a few years ago. Products used for disease control have changed, meaning they often now require “ounces per acre instead of pounds per acre,” Eastburn said. According to the article, these new products are typically applied in the form of liquids rather than dry chemicals, yet nothing is said on their toxicity.
Advocates for crop dusting say that as the planes have become more expensive and sophisticated pilots are less likely to be reckless about spraying. Global positioning systems, for instance, have helped to increase efficiency, according to Mark Hanna, an extension agricultural engineer with Iowa State University. These new technologies, along with larger plane designs with more powerful engines, have caused prices to climb from about $30,000 a plane in 1979 to more than $750,000 today.
All this is troubling news for the organic community, however as pesticide drift, the movement of pesticide particles or droplets during or after a pesticide application, is particularly common with crop dusting. In “Reducing Pesticide Drift,” from Crop Watch News Service, the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension estimates that up to 40% of a pesticide applied in aerial spraying is lost to drift. (Klein, B. 2002) Another study, Amounts of pesticides reaching target pests: Environmental impacts and ethics found that an estimated less than 0.1% of an insecticide actually reached target pests. Therefore, more than 99% of the applied pesticide is released and left to impact the surrounding environment.
Pilots might be spending more money on equipment and have access to better GPS technology, but the chemicals are still being applied in the same way: from the air and dusted over the crops. Chemical drift is inevitable, and there is always room for human error.
There are plenty of cost effective alternative methods for combating the fungal diseases farmers in the Midwest are worried about without the need for spraying harmful pesticides and chemicals. For instance, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service recommends managing gray leaf spot in corn by a combination of hybrid selection, crop rotation, and a tillage system.
According to ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Asian Soybean Rust can be controlled using a variety of organic methods. Because this disease is wind-borne and descends in clouds of spores, traditional crop rotation of corn and soybeans does not help mitigate the effects of this disease. However, compost teas, microbial inoculants, and foliar biostimulants have particularly disease suppressive characteristics.
Compost teas and microbial inoculants contain a diversity of microorganisms which help regulate soil fertility, boost crop health, and compete with plant pathogenic organisms for food resources in both the root and leaf zone. Foliar fertilization, with a blend of organic fertilizers, minerals, and biostimulants is also known to boost crop health. Foliar sprays are commonly employed in organic farming.
There is also a growing trend in to monitor plant tissue sap for pH levels, which can be used to indicate crop nutritional status, by using specialized hand-held pocket meters. One chart suggests that pH of plant sap can indicate plant susceptibility to insect and disease attack. A higher pH, alkaline, is said to increase probability of insect attack, while lower pH, acidic, is said to increase probability of disease attack.
Furthermore, according to a report by the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth International, from 80% to over 90% of the soybean, and corn planted in the U.S. are GE varieties, the main crops indicated in this latest surge of crop dusting activities. Despite more than a decade of its claims to the contrary, the biotechnology industry has not introduced a single GE crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought-tolerance or salt-tolerance, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields. Additionally, the biotechnology industry’s own figures show that 85% of all GE crop acreage worldwide in 2008 was planted with herbicide-tolerant crops, no doubt making crop dusting an appealing choice for farmers who use these varieties.
There are a variety of reasons to avoid genetically engineered crops: links to infertility, persistence in the environment, increased pesticide use, insect resistance, and risk to aquatic organisms. The organic label ensures that consumers can avoid all GE products, in addition to reducing toxic pesticide use and increasing environmental and public health. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides’ GE program page.