IPM, Antibiotics, and Fire Blight- is there a happy medium?

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Applpy over at Thought + Food recently published an interesting article talking about increased antibiotic use in organic pear and apple orchards.  These antibiotics—Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline—are used to combat fire blight, a contagious disease that can destroy an entire orchard in a season.  It’s spread primarily by pollen-bearing insects such as bees, and although it’s indigenous to North America it has since spread to the rest of the world.[1]  It’s extraordinarily damaging, especially to organic farmers whose orchards tend to contain more pollen-bearing insects thanks to decreased pesticide use.  That’s why organic farmers received an exemption to allow them to use these antibiotics on their fruit—but applpy pointed out that organic labels don’t require disclosure of antibiotic use anyway.

So where do we draw the line between antibiotic use and orchard health?  Fire blight is devastating, but antibiotic use in food has proven to be problematic;[2] is there a way to mitigate or eliminate the effects of fire blight without the use of antibiotics?  Applpy raised this question, and I had commented on the potential of Integrated Pest Management/Control (IPM/IPC) to do exactly that.

But what is IPM?  Well, it’s integrated pest management—so just as pesticides won’t be effective, IPM can’t control this bacteria-born blight entirely.  However, IPM is a series of practices that dovetails perfectly with fire blight prevention.   Rather than dousing orchards in fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, IPM advocates a more sensible, measured approach.  From the EPA’s website:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.  IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

So what does that mean for fire blight prevention?  Rather than spraying affected trees and fruit with antibiotics, farmers would instead scan for early signs of infection and plan new orchards based on existing knowledge.  For example, nitrogen containing fertilizer and heavy pruning increases susceptibility; farmers would know keep that in mind when selecting fertilizers and pruning.  Infected shoots can be pruned during the dormant season to contain spread; IPM involves year-round orchard maintenance and supervision.

Essentially, IPM is a low-chemical, common-sense approach to pest management that has the potential to cut down on fire blight without excessive use of antibiotics or pesticides.  It’s not so advanced yet as to make pesticide and antibiotic use obsolete in fire blight cases, but it can drastically reduce the amount of chemicals needed.  So what do you think?  Do you know much about IPM or exemptions for organic farmers?  What are your thoughts?