Until recently, many of us never imagined that foods we know and love might be missing from our grocery store shelves. We’ve taken for granted that the watermelons, tomatoes and avocados we depend upon will be there—perfectly shaped, blemish-free and abundantly stocked.
Today, that work is even more critical, as we comprehend the importance of resilient domestic food production. Clearly, we’re seeing how specialty crops will continue to protect U.S. consumers’ access to varied and nutritious diets—so long as we protect them. And that’s where IR-4 comes in.
Understanding IR-4’s role in ensuring food security and a thriving specialty crop industry was the subject of a lunch and learn on March 10 in Washington, D.C. IR-4 hosted the event for members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to discuss the critical part IR-4 plays in getting so many of America’s treasured foods onto our plates.
Or, into our glasses. As Ann George of Hop Growers of America told the group, “No IR-4, No IPA.”
That got our attention!
Staffers from senators Sanders (I-VT), Murray (D-WA), Collins (R-ME), Murkowski (R-AK), Udall (D-NM), Baldwin (D-WI) and Stabenow’s (D-MI) offices gained insights about the importance of IR-4’s work from those who know it well, including Berry Tanner of the National Watermelon Association, Amy Upton from the Michigan Nursery Landscape Association, Armando Monterroso of Brooks Tropicals, LLC, Ann George of Hop Growers of America and the U.S. Hop Industry Plant Protection Committee, Mike Bledsoe from Village Farms International, and Mike Aerts of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, who served as emcee.
“The basis for the lunch and learn was the fact that IR-4 has been around for close to 60 years, and since 2009, they haven’t had any budget increases,” summarized Mike Bledsoe by phone in April. He added that it’s a very modest budget—about $11.9 million—and while IR-4 strives for efficiency, the number of trials has had to go down as the cost of the trials has gone up. “And our industries are continually facing new challenges.”
Village Farms International is almost entirely a greenhouse enterprise, a sector which has grown immensely in the past few decades, explained Bledsoe. “The large-scale greenhouse industry started in about 1989. About half of one percent of fresh market tomatoes in retail stores came from greenhouses and most of that was from Canada and the Netherlands. Today, 75 percent of all fresh market tomatoes in retail [outlets], including grocery stores and big box, are from greenhouses. In fact, in big box, it’s closer to 95 percent, since they live by three things: year-round production, high quality and food safety. And all three of those are epitomized by greenhouse growing.
“The greenhouse industry had nothing registered in 1989 when it started as a large-scale industry,” Bledsoe continued. “IR-4 immediately helped us to start getting EPA acceptance of some materials that were already out there, and ever since then they’ve been helping us to get registrations.”
And IR-4’s work to help greenhouse and other specialty crop growers get the products they need impacts a lot more foods than many consumers initially think. “When people hear the term ‘minor crop’ or ‘specialty crop,’ they think it’s a small market,” he noted. “But 40 percent of what you put on your table comes from ‘minor’ crops, and the produce aisle is the most productive aisle in the grocery store in terms of their profit.”
Sharing highlights from each presentation, Mike Aerts summarized some of the key points made by stakeholders. Each reiterated IR-4’s priceless value to specialty crop production.
“Because of required research costs, the chemical industry must concentrate its efforts on large-acre major crops like corn, soybeans and cotton, where potential sales will support the necessary monetary investments. Specialty crops therefore naturally become orphan crops, because of their limited sales volume potentials,” Aerts recalled via email. “Recognizing this dilemma, it was Congress who created IR-4 back in 1963 to assist specialty crop farmers in obtaining tools for their pest management toolboxes.”
This is especially true in Florida, Aerts added via email. The state grows 250 crops, all of which are essentially specialty crops. But Florida’s subtropical environment, while great for growing everything from arugula to zucchini, is unfortunately also ideal for pest proliferation.
Meanwhile, as Aerts also shared via email, “specialty crops must be nearly aesthetically perfect to even have a chance at selling. To obtain such perfection, farmers must use crop protection tools, and most of these tools are made available primarily through IR-4. In fact, Florida growers could not successfully produce a crop without significant tools in their crop protection toolboxes, and these crop protection tools come from work accomplished by IR-4.”
Aerts told the group in March that “without IR-4, Florida agriculture would be floundering if not failing,” noting that “Florida agriculture is the number two economic pillar/machine in the state.”
Aerts also stressed that IR-4 has seen a “25 percent reduction in the number of studies over the last 10 years,” and that “stakeholders are advocating for the program.”
One of those stakeholders, Armando Monterroso of Brooks Tropicals, LLC, expanded on the effects of a reduced number of studies by phone in April, emphasizing that growers suffer because IR-4’s budget has been flat.
“Tropicals have a particular problem because many new pests and diseases arrive in our area. The weather helps their development, and that’s a complication for our crops. New issues need new chemistries that are not available or not approved. First you have to test them and see if you can control or manage your pests, then you need to get the registration—and to have the target crop on the label.”
Growers of numerous specialty crops ask for new products to help them cope with increasing pest pressure, but just 40 projects are approved per year. “IR-4 cannot handle more, and 40 is almost nothing, if you see the list,” Monterroso said. “It’s incredible. But all of these crops have needs. So we have around 300 requests and we have to reduce it to 40. That’s where we see the complication, and they cannot do more because the budget is so low. Then the next year it’s the same thing, and other problems have come.
“So that’s why we try to do our best to support IR-4,” he summarized, “and that’s why we’re trying to request whatever is possible to solve that complication, because we are directly affected.”
And by extension, we’re all affected, if we can’t count on continued production of the produce keeping us nourished.
Bledsoe also noted the refreshingly functional aspects of IR-4. “When a registration comes in from IR-4, it’s not a chemical company saying we want to get another registration out there and go sell it; it means that the stakeholders have said they want that product. So the EPA now knows that it’s an important product because there are only so many priorities each year and people fight like heck to get them. And with IR-4, the stakeholders basically make the decisions, unlike other governmental agencies. When we have a prioritization session, they take the notes and do the work but they leave the stakeholders to make the decisions. There’s nothing like that anywhere else in government that I know of. It’s a Camelot of what a government should be like.”
Bledsoe highlighted that even in moving IR-4’s headquarters operations to North Carolina, “they haven’t missed a lick. In fact, they had more registrations last year than the year before. So these are really dedicated people.”
In his closing remarks, Aerts stated that “IR-4 has proven to be cost effective, and a valuable investment of taxpayer dollars that provides an exceptional ROI,” calling it “a proven program with proven success.”
Katie Chriest is a freelance technical writer in Erie, Pennsylvania; firstname.lastname@example.org