Beyond IPM (Part 1 of 3)

With the findings of the recent court case (August 2018) in the USA regarding the use of the pesticide Glyphosate and its alleged contribution to the cancer of a groundsman, as well as the negative impact pesticide use has on wildlife in general, the need to challenge Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as supposedly being the ‘best practice’ approach cannot be understated and is part of a wider an issue we should be investigating and debating. (The Guardian, 11th August 2018, ‘Monsanto ordered to pay $289m as jury rules weedkiller caused man’s cancer’, accessed 20th August 2018)

Pesticide poisons

Pesticide poisons

We need to have a greater vision than the current thinking and look beyond short term benefits and limitations by more actively engaging with a systematic, holistic, approach which delivers a sustainable outcome to turf surface management. The direct risk to human health from pesticide use is typically very low, however, the indirect risk may be higher, but the risk to wildlife from pesticides is certainly high, something which the current debate in turf management often misses the point by focusing just on human health issues.

The current industry response, on the whole, has been to support the continued use of pesticides rather than seeing them as a current necessary evil but which need to be significantly minimised and ideally eliminated. (Horticulture Week, 13th August 2018, ‘What is the future for glyphosate?‘, accessed 20th August 2018)

The industry should be emphasising the need for a sustainable future in turf management but continue to rhetorically ‘green wash’ the issue: using phrases such as ‘integrated approach’ all sounds very nice and plausible, however, the reality is that lip service is given to this – essentially, it could be argued that phrases such as the above are used as a front to appear concerned for the environment.

In practice I suspect the elimination of pesticides is an unachievable goal, yet a focus on ‘maximum minimisation’ should at least be an active initial goal, rather than rhetoric which glosses over the need to achieve this, or ignores it altogether. It is all very reminiscent of the chemical manufacturers and many politicians response to CFC use and the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the vocal, yet minority, response to the current serious issue of climate change. The bottom line for them was that the dollar (or pound) is more important than the environment.

In this 3-part blog article I’ll look at how we can develop a systematic, and sustainable approach which is ‘Beyond IPM’ (I’m not intending to paraphrase the repackaging of BP when it became known as ‘Beyond Petroleum’), with the desire to genuinely minimise and then eliminate the use of pesticides in turf management.

Setting our surface aim
First up we might consider what we want to achieve from the provision of a particular turfgrass surface. For example, is it for

  • encouraging biodiversity?
  • providing protective cover for wildlife?
  • providing food for insects?
  • providing an attractive backdrop to floral displays?
  • providing an area for local community use?
  • preventing soil erosion? or
  • the playing of a sport, and to what level of quality?

The concept of sustainability includes the involvement of stakeholders, so these should be identified and then consulted in all management plans. This is a really important part of any holistic system yet it is one to which is often ignored, or little attempted. Once stakeholders have been consulted and the aim of surface agreed, then an appropriate sustainable management plan can start to be devised.

One of the first stages where a grounds manager can influence sustainability issues is at the planning and design stage for the construction of a surface, for example such as a football pitch. The grounds manager can influence the siting of a pitch and type of construction by explaining not just about the optimum environmental conditions for turfgrass growth, but also about the requirements for effective ongoing management by highlighting the relationship between pitch carrying capacity, standards that are realistically achievable for the soil or construction type, user management and maintenance inputs.

Sports surface
If an existing turfgrass surface is primarily for the playing of sport then one of the system components that needs to be embedded into the sustainability thinking is that which a manager has direct control – this is the management plan, and IPM should currently be an integral part of the overall plan.

An early stage of IPM is to identify unhealthy plant situations. A suitable survey and analysis of a surface (including the rootzone and subsoil) can identify such situations and can provide the base data on which to devise a suitable maintenance programme. Examples might include:

  • excessive nitrogen applications promoting weak soft growth,
  • exposed areas,
  • maintenance activities under incorrect soil conditions,
  • plant stress caused by overuse or,
  • poor maintenance work that increases plant stress,
  • shaded areas,
  • sheltered areas that eliminate or minimise airflow,
  • soil compaction,
  • soil nutrient status and chemical composition,
  • soil pH levels,
  • use of a surface under the wrong conditions,
  • wet soils.

The gathered data can then be related to performance criteria and standards to help develop a ‘fit for purpose’ surface and site management plan. This will form an objective measure of the desired outcomes for the sports surface.

Unhealthy growing and development conditions contribute to the increased likelihood of weed, pest and disease problems. Identifying and then addressing underlying conditions is the way forward in creating a healthier and less stressed turf surface.

Applying ‘preventative’ pesticides (especially for diseases and some pests) is an all too persuasive argument by suppliers to time or resource challenged ground staff, however, this does fit well with the current practice of IPM, where pesticide use should, in theory, only be used where all other options have been exhausted.

Pesticide overuse, or pesticide first (sounds a bit like ‘America first’) will only perpetuate unhealthy conditions – this is not a sustainable situation. We need to have the vision, and conviction, to go beyond current IPM practices to focus on what is really needed to ensure a more sustainable approach.

Too often we here of excuses of why this can’t be done, however, a few innovators, such as Adam Witchell at Forest Green Rovers, are showing that a non-pesticide approach to turf management can be achieved, especially through a better understanding and insight of the relationship between the turf and soil environment:
With Forest Green’s pitch the world’s first organic playing surface, Adam produced an excellent surface for FGR’s promotion winning campaign without the use of pesticides or chemicals used by many groundsmen in the UK.”
(Gazette, 2nd July 2017, ‘FOOTBALL: Forest Green groundsman Witchell nominated for top award’, accessed 20th August 2018)

We mustn’t sit back and accept the current status quo, but continue to develop our vision and aim for pesticide free surfaces. With the range of equipment and materials available to grounds staff to support cultural and physical maintenance practices, this should not be as challenging an issue as often perceived.

Part 2 of this blog article will look at some of the non-pesticide and sustainable ways of weed, pest and disease management and the implications of this approach.

Chris Gray, 20th August 2018