Evolving Sustainable Pest Management in California – Ag innovations’ Road through Systems Change

California Department of Food and Agriculture insect trap

By Suzannah Sosman

The Sustainable Pest Management Roadmap for California – released by the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) on January 26th – articulates a bold vision for pest management over the next 25 years and beyond that promotes human health and well-being, environmental health and resilience, and economic viability for all.

This system-wide transition to sustainable pest management and the elimination of prioritized high-risk pesticides in California was only possible with the sustained commitment of the state and a diverse cross-sector of stakeholders working together to find consensus on a highly polarizing and complex topic. This commitment however, was not inevitable, but was developed over time based on prior work and the changing needs of the times. We need to look back at how California’s approach to pest management has evolved over the last 20+ years in order to understand the significance of this moment and its potential lasting impact.

Participants of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, School of Integrated Pest Management Program

In the early 2000s

Pest management and the debate around pesticide use played a prominent role in Ag Innovations since its founding food systems work with the Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance in 2000. This unique alliance was one of the first spaces in California where environmentalists, labor groups and farmers bridged historic conflict to come together to create a durable, community based, consensus driven forum. The Alliance’s mission was to protect agriculture in Ventura County in perpetuity.

The Alliance was almost immediately faced with a crisis when a local grower over sprayed, reaching children playing outside at an elementary school. Instead of retreating to their entrenched positions as they did in the past, Alliance members had built enough trust amongst themselves within a short period of time to talk directly and even issue a common joint statement. This led to the passing of some of the first legislation in California restricting the use of pesticides around school grounds.

These early accomplishments proved the effectiveness of this approach: get representatives from all parts of the system in the room, discuss the realities of the situation and their aspirations, and try to come to a collective understanding and agreement that can move the issue forward. Still the method Ag Innovations uses at its core, this approach has only become all the more difficult as the environment has become more highly polarized.

Much of the work around pesticides and pest management in the early 2000s underscored the divide between those directly impacted by pesticides or those pursuing alternatives, and growers or commodity groups. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) called on Ag Innovations to facilitate a fishbowl dialogue with farmworkers and growers in the early 2000s that called attention to the effects of pesticide use on the farmworkers and raised awareness within the agricultural community. This unique process allows for different stakeholder “sets” to have a chance to share their own perspectives together, while being listened to by others. Subtleties and variations that naturally occur in any group of people are able to be brought out, and different groups understand each other more thoroughly as a result with this dialogue approach.

The next round: 2012-2018

DPR partnered with Ag Innovations again in 2012 to convene a working group to look at alternatives to fumigants in strawberry production. While the working group was able to develop an action plan with recommendations to advance non-fumigant alternatives, the project also highlighted institutional resistance to alternatives and the differences between strawberry growers and those exploring alternatives to fumigants. During these early dialogues much of Ag Innovations’ work focused on helping the agricultural community understand the needs and interests of the wider community, and vice versa, thus beginning to build relationships in a way that allowed growers to continue successfully. As this understanding grew, goals revolved around growing high quality food that is also good for the environment and people.

Ag Innovations was brought in by the state again in 2017-2018 to lead a series of conversations around Integrated Pest Management (IPM) throughout the state, which resulted in a series of key recommendations for the pest management community, an inaugural IPM Summit, and a white paper, Roadmap for Integrated Pest Management: Using Systems Thinking to Build Better IPM for All Californians. While the recommendations set forth by the leading Technical Advisory Committee were broad reaching and an advancement in IPM, the Committee leadership still lacked community voices.

It wasn’t until CalEPA, under Governor Newsom’s administration, deregistered the highly toxic chemical pesticide Chlorpyrifos that a more diverse work group with farmers, public health experts and farmworker community representatives came together to identify the limited uses where Chlorpyrifos was still needed and make recommendations on alternatives. This work group was meeting to look at alternatives while the state was actively taking Chlorpyrifos off the market, a move that didn’t support trust building between the state and the agricultural community.

However, the Chlorpyrifos Alternatives Work Group was able to reach consensus on a number of recommendations, the greatest of which resulted in state funding to develop a statewide roadmap to sustainable pest management over the next 25 years.

From the early 2000s to current day public perception around pesticide use has grown immensely. This is especially true within the Latinx community, whose power and influence has grown immensely within the agricultural community and beyond. As public attitudes and engagement around this issue have grown and shifted over time, the state government has had to respond. The government now embraces a fully triple bottom line approach around the economy, the environment, and community.

2020-2022: The Sustainable Pest Management Roadmap

The SPM work group and urban subgroup brought a diverse range of stakeholders to the table to find common ground based on a desire to promote human health and safety, ecosystem resilience, agricultural sustainability, community wellbeing, and economic vitality for all of California. We built on this common ground to develop a shared understanding of what matters most to each stakeholder, and create consensus on a range of ambitious goals and actions that are and will influence state actions for decades to come. The durability and support for those goals is reflected in the trust and consensus built through the process.

The SPM Roadmap is an invitation and a call to action for all Californians to join the effort in co-creating a healthy, thriving California with safer, more sustainable pest management for generations to come. The potential legacy of the Roadmap is great, and our hope is that the relationships and systems awareness that was built as part of the process will ripple throughout California.

Just as we did with the Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance 20 years ago, Ag Innovations has partnered with state agencies and leaders in California in finding a way through the eye of the needle through the SPM Roadmap. However, only time will tell the true impact as the state’s approach, public perception and awareness, and the market continues to grow and evolve.

A big thank you to Joseph McIntyre, for his memory and leadership over many years of stewarding the conversations on pest management in California.