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The Growing Market for IPM Labels

Only four years old now, the burgeoning practice of using IPM (integrated pest management) labels on food is of special significance to those of us at Cornell University. It all began at our doorstep. Executives from Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., a Rochester-based retail grocer, approached Cornell in 1994, seeking the means to offer its customers IPM-grown sweet corn. Wegmans was examining new marketing strategies and wanted to test the marketplace with an IPM product.

IPM, as applied to agriculture, is an approach to pest management in which growers limit their chemical pesticide use. This is achieved by enlisting the aid of a variety of methods to reduce pest damage. IPM methods protect the environment, the people working in agriculture, and consumers, and result in high-quality crops.

Training the Growers. In response to Wegmans’ request for help, Cornell IPM extension educators from Cornell taught IPM methods to Wegmans’ sweet corn suppliers. The training for these growers was co-funded and co-facilitated by the IPM Program and PRO-TECH, a Cornell Cooperative Extension program whose mission was to enhance the sustainability and competitiveness of New York’s fruit, vegetable, and ornamental horticulture industries through education programs.

Testing the Marketplace. The first IPM label appeared in 1995 on the bins of sweet corn at one Rochester-area Wegmans store. A follow-up survey completed by 300 Wegmans customers showed substantial support for the new label and all that it represents. Wegmans decided to sell IPM-labeled corn at additional stores and also to obtain IPM labels for canned and frozen vegetables. Comstock Michigan Fruit, its supplier of processed vegetables, was able immediately to "sign up" 10 growers who were already practicing IPM.

Writing the "Elements." In 1996 interested growers met with Cornell IPM extension educators and faculty and with representatives from Wegmans and Comstock to work out the details involved in marketing food under an IPM label. One crucial endeavor by this group was the formulation of "IPM Elements" for six processing crops: beets, cabbage for sauerkraut, carrots, peas, snap beans, and sweet corn. The Elements are lists of agreed-upon integrated pest management and crop management practices to be followed in producing crops that are to be sold under an IPM label. Groups like this continue to convene to formalize sets of IPM Elements for additional crops, always in response to requests from the food industry. As of 1999 IPM Elements have been developed for 16 vegetable and fruit crops in New York.

Qualifying to Use the Label. Growers who will be producing crops for IPM labeling are assigned points for adopting various techniques included in the Elements. Each grower must keep detailed records verifying use of these techniques, and a specific, predetermined point total must be achieved to qualify a crop as "IPM grown." All of the growers currently growing for IPM labeling have scored at or above the 80 percent level each year. This is about 15 percent above what is required. Their records are analyzed by an independent third party who reports to Wegmans.

The New York State IPM Program logo is featured on each of Wegmans’ IPM-grown products. The logo is owned by the Cornell Research Foundation, which obtained a trademark on it and holds the licensing agreement for its use, whether by Wegmans or by any other party outside of Cornell.

Why Do It? IPM labeling encourages and rewards environmental stewardship on the part of growers and processors. This stewardship is represented in part by reductions in pesticide use. Data from several crops in New York show that adoption of the IPM Elements at the 80 percent level will result in pesticide use reductions of 30 to 50 percent. Data concerning the environmental impact of the pesticides used on each crop are also being gathered These data have been very favorable to the environment, showing decreasing environmental impact quotients (EIQs) over time (see table 1).

Proponents of the labeling effort at Wegmans and in other organizations also see IPM labels as part of a process of educating consumers about IPM. The labels on Wegmans canned vegetables include a New York State IPM Program logo inside a blue ribbon and the following text: "Through IPM, growers use less pesticide over time by taking other steps to reduce pest damage. Your purchase supports the efforts of growers who truly care about the environment."

IPM Labeling in 1999: New York and Beyond. IPM labels have by now been attached to bins of fresh corn, tomatoes, cherries, and asparagus and on cans of corn, peas, and beets in most of the 50-plus stores owned by Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., in New York and Pennsylvania. Their newest store, to open later this year in Princeton, New Jersey, will add another state to this list.

Other licensed users of the IPM logo in New York include Eden Valley Growers, members of the New York Berry Growers Association, Agrilink Foods, and a grower from southeastern New York who will be selling IPM-labeled lettuce in the 1999 season. Groups that include growers and land-grant university scientists are now developing IPM Elements in Wisconsin (for several crops), Hawaii (for pineapple), and Pennsylvania (for fresh and processed mushrooms and sweet corn). A nonprofit organization called the IPM Institute of North America was recently formed to coordinate labeling needs on the national level. All of these entities look to New York’s labeling program and to its Cornell roots as their model.

Statistics about IPM labeling trends in New York are shown in table 1. They were gathered for food processing companies by an independent evaluator. Data for fresh-market crops are not yet available, nor are any of the figures for 1999. These statistics show increases in the numbers of growers and acres producing crops for IPM labeling and a decrease in the environmental impact of growing these crops. Crops showing higher environmental impacts in 1997 than in 1996 faced increased pest pressures in 1997.

Table 1. IPM Labeling Trends in New York
  NYS producers growing for IPM labeling NYS acres growing IPM-labeled produce
1996 31 3,490
1997 118 8,092
1998 152 (est.) 9,029 (est.)

Table 2. Trends in reducing the environmental impact of growing processed crops, as measured by the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)
Crop
EIQ Values ’96
EIQ Values ‘97
beets 72 66
carrots 258 173
kraut cabbage 45 74
peas 23 27
snap beans 114 110
sweet corn 136 119

 

written by Margaret Haining Cowles, New York State IPM Program Staff Writer