Is There a Boom Or Bust Coming For Natural Pest Control?

The world is going green. “Green” is the color of environmental concern, the impetus that drives cutting-edge technology, the buzz word of the socially conscious. Concern for the environment and man’s impact on it is bringing a slew of new products to market, and pest control is no exception. Environmentally-friendly pest control services are growing in popularity, particularly in the commercial sector. Even eco-savvy residential consumers are asking about natural alternatives to traditional pesticides, but their ardor often cools when confronted with the 10% to 20% cost differential and lengthier treatment times, sometimes several weeks.

The raising of America’s environmental consciousness, coupled with increasingly stringent federal regulations governing traditional chemical pesticides, appears to be shifting the pest control industry’s focus to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. IPM is considered not only safer for the environment, but safer for people, pets and secondary scavengers such as owls. Of 378 pest management companies surveyed in 2008 by Pest Control Technology magazine, two-thirds said they offered IPM services of some sort.

Instead of lacing pest sites with a poisonous cocktail of powerful insecticides designed to kill, IPM focuses on environmentally-friendly prevention techniques designed to keep pests out. While low- or no-toxicity products may also be used to encourage pests to pack their bags, elimination and control efforts focus on finding and eliminating the causes of infestation: entry points, attractants, harborage and food.

Particularly popular with schools and nursing homes charged with guarding the health of the nation’s youngest and oldest citizens, those at greatest risk from hazardous chemicals, IPM is catching the attention of hotels, office buildings, apartment complexes and other commercial enterprises, as well as eco-conscious residential customers. Driven in equal parts by environmental concerns and health hazard fears, interest in IPM is bringing a host of new environmentally-friendly pest management products — both high- and low-tech — to market.

“Probably the best product out there is a door sweep,” confided Tom Green, president of the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America, a non-profit organization that certifies green exterminating companies. In an Associated Press interview posted on MSNBC online last April, Green explained, “A mouse can squeeze through a hole the size of a pencil diameter. So if you’ve got a quarter-inch gap underneath your door, as far as a mouse is concerned, there’s no door there at all.” Cockroaches can slither through a one-eighth inch crevice.

IPM is “a better approach to pest control for the health of the home, the environment and the family,” said Cindy Mannes, spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association, the $6.3 billion pest control industry’s trade association, in the same Associated Press story. However, because IPM is a relatively new addition to the pest control arsenal, Mannes cautioned that there is little industry consensus on the definition of green services.

In an effort to create industry standards for IPM services and providers, the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America developed the Green Shield Certified (GSC) program. Identifying pest control products and companies that eschew traditional pesticides in favor of environmentally-friendly control methods, GSC is endorsed by the EPA, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and HUD. IPM favors mechanical, physical and cultural methods to control pests, but may use bio-pesticides derived from naturally-occurring materials such as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals.

Toxic chemical sprays are giving way to new, sometimes unconventional, methods of treating pests. Some are ultra high-tech like the quick-freeze Cryonite process for eliminating bed bugs. Others, like trained dogs that sniff out bed bugs, seem decidedly low-tech, but employ state-of-the-art methods to achieve results. For example, farmers have used dogs’ sensitive noses to sniff out problem pests for centuries; but training dogs to sniff out explosives and drugs is a relatively recent development. Using those same techniques to teach dogs to sniff out termites and bed bugs is considered cutting-edge.

Another new pest control technique is birth control. When San Francisco was threatened by mosquitoes carrying potentially life-threatening West Nile Virus, bicycle messengers were hired to cruise the city and drop packets of biological insecticide into the city’s 20,000 storm drains. A kind of birth control for mosquitoes, the new method was considered safer than aerial spraying with the chemical pyrethrum, the typical mosquito abatement procedure, according to a recent story posted on the National Public Radio website.

Naturally, there are efforts underway to build a better mousetrap. The innovative Track & Trap system attracts mice or rats to a food station dusted with fluorescent powder. Rodents leave a blacklight-visible trail that allows pest control experts to seal entry paths. Coming soon, NightWatch uses pheromone research to lure and trap bed bugs. In England, a sonic device designed to repel rats and squirrels is being tested, and the aptly named Rat Zapper is purported to deliver a lethal shock using just two AA batteries.

Alongside this influx of new environmentally-friendly products rides a posse of federal regulations. Critics of recent EPA regulations restricting the sale of certain pest-killing chemicals accuse the government of unfairly limiting a homeowner’s ability to protect his property. The EPA’s 2004 banning of the chemical diazinon for household use a couple of years ago removed a potent ant-killer from the homeowner’s pest control arsenal. Similarly, 2008 EPA regulations prohibiting the sale of small quantities of effective rodenticides, unless sold inside an enclosed trap, has stripped rodent-killing chemicals from the shelves of hardware and home improvement stores, limiting the homeowner’s ability to protect his property and family from these disease-carrying pests.

Acting for the public good, the government’s pesticide-control actions are particularly aimed at protecting children. According to a May 20, 2008 report on CNN online, a study conducted by the American Association of Poison Control Centers indicated that rat poison was responsible for nearly 60,000 poisonings between 2001 and 2003, 250 of them resulting in serious injuries or death. National Wildlife Service testing in California found rodenticide residue in every animal tested.

Consumers are embracing the idea of natural pest control and environmentally-friendly, cutting-edge pest management products and techniques. Availability and government regulations are increasingly limiting consumers’ self-treatment options, forcing them to turn to professional pest control companies for relief from pest invasions. While this has proved a viable option for commercial customers, few residential customers seem willing to pay higher prices for newer, more labor-intensive green pest control products and even fewer are willing to wait the additional week or two it may take these products to work. It is taking leadership efforts on the part of pest control companies to educate consumers in the long term benefits of green and natural pest treatments.

Even though the cold, hard truth is that when people have a pest problem, they want it gone and they want it gone now! If rats or mice are in their house destroying their property and threatening their family with disease, if termites or carpenter ants are eating away their home equity, if roaches are invading their kitchen or if they’re sharing their bed with bed bugs, consumer interest in environmental friendliness plummets. When people call a pest control company, the bottom line is that they want the pests dead! Now! Pest control firms are standing up against the tide of consumer demand for immediate eradication by enhancing their natural and green pest control product offerings. These new natural products take the most responsible long term approach to pest control; one that protects our environment, children, and our own health. Sometimes it is lonely moving against the tide of popular demand, but true leadership, in the pest control industry, means embracing these new organic and natural technologies even when they are not popular with the consumer – yet.

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Biological Pest Control – Is it the Answer to Pest Control-Related Environmental Concerns?

Before we can get into trying to understand whether biological pest control is the answer to the pest-control related environmental concerns, it would be proper to give ourselves a little background information on this whole pest control business; for the benefit of those who may be encountering it for the very first time.

Now, pests are organisms (typically insects) that are injurious to the interests of the people who refer to them as such. Thus to farmers, the insects that invade and eat up their crops (whether in the fields or during storage), would be termed as pests. On the other hand, the ‘domestic insects’ that tend to mess up with things in domestic settings (like moths, that can mess up with cloths in storage), are seen as pests by housekeepers. Worth keeping in mind is that although most pests are insects, there are also quite are number that are non-insects: with the likes of rodents (that can mess up with crops in farms of things stored in domestic settings) being seen as pests too, the fact that they are not insects notwithstanding.

Having seen that pests are injurious, it would be natural that the people who happen to ‘fall victim’ to them would want to get rid of them. In the meantime, people who haven’t yet fallen victim to pests would be keen to avoid such a ‘fate.’ Hosting pests, by the way, can be a serious fate: thousands of hectares of farmland have been known to be wasted by pests in a single day, leading to losses that often run into millions of dollars. It is the steps taken to avoid pest invasion then, or to resolve pest invasion if it has already taken place, that are referred to as constituting pest control.

Now pest control takes various forms, depending on the pests one is trying to get rid of (or to prevent the invasion of). And while bigger pests like rodents may be controlled through mechanical means like trapping, for a long period of time, it is chemical control that has worked for the vast majority of pests, which tend to be insects as previous mentioned. The chemicals used in this endeavor are what are termed as pesticides. And while pesticides are usually very effective in pest-control, the downside to them tends to come up when we consider the fact that they tend to be extremely environmentally unfriendly. Worth keeping in mind, at this point, is the fact that the chemicals referred to as pesticides tend to be very potent ones. So it often happens that traces of them remain where they were used, even after the pests are gone. Those traces are eventually washed down to the water bodies where they wreck great havoc to the (non pest) plants and animals resident in the water bodies.

It is concern about this environmental impact of chemical pest-control that led to questions as to whether a more environmentally friend method for controlling pests couldn’t be developed. The end result was the exploration of alternatives like the biological pest control, which we are trying to see whether it is really the answer to concerns raised about (chemical- based) pest control.

In biological pest-control, it is other organisms that are known to be predators to the ones viewed as pest that are unleashed upon the said pests; eating them up and therefore resolving the pest problem. Thus if the troublesome pests are aphids, the other organisms that are known to feed on aphids are introduced into the field where the problem is, to feed on the aphids, rather than spraying an environmentally unfriendly chemical.

The problem with biological pest-control, though, is that it tends to be of questionable efficiency. While chemical pest control tends to be thorough, leaving no pests or even traces of them, in biological pest control, that can’t quite be assured. Implementing biological pest control on a large scale basis (for instance on a thousand hectare plantation) can also prove to be a herculean task. Ultimately, it is considerations like these that make us keep on thinking of more environmentally friendly pest control approaches. This is because biological pest control, while definitely being an approach that addresses the environmental concerns raised about chemical pest control, it doesn’t seem to be efficient (or scalable) enough, in most people people’s view.

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