UC pest management benefits outstrip costs

University of California pest management research more than pays for itself in benefits to agriculture and the public, according to a new UC publication “Returns to University of California Pest Management Research and Extension.”

The authors estimated that UC pest management research has resulted in benefits, in present value terms, worth at least three dollars for every dollar invested. The financial benefits go to agricultural producers and to consumers, who have access to better quality food at a lower cost. Although surely significant, the economists were not able to measure the environmental and social value of reduced pesticide use that was often associated with the new technologies.

The study's lead author, John Mullen, took leave from his position as principal research scientist and economics coordinator for New South Wales Agriculture in Orange, Australia, to work on the project under the direction of UC Davis agricultural economics professor Julian Alston and director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center Dan Sumner, along with AIC Center staff Marcia Kreith and Nicolai Kuminoff.

The book provides an overview of pest management research and five detailed case studies, all emphasizing integrated pest management. UC scientists have developed a great deal of information about the biology of insect pests and their interaction with natural enemies, and cultural and chemical control strategies. Since insects often spread plant diseases, insect control has the secondary benefit of plant disease control. The use of this information and careful pest population monitoring are the distinguishing features of UC's IPM technologies.

State leadership

“It was a real eye-opener to see how much leadership California has shown in that area,” Alston said. “IPM techniques developed in California have been adopted all around the United States and in other countries.”

The book's five case studies review the evolution of pest management strategies and the pest management costs and benefits in almonds, cotton, oranges, processing tomatoes and lettuce.

The authors sought to determine what elements of the industries' advances in yield, product quality and production costs can be attributed to technologies generated by UC IPM research since 1950. They estimated benefits and costs from IPM programs for four of the case-study commodities - almonds, cotton, oranges and processing tomatoes - and converted these to an equivalent one-time payment, or present value, in 2000. A conservative estimate of the present value of total benefits across these four commodities was $1,326 million, almost three times greater than the present value of the corresponding total cost, $461 million.

With all the complex factors involved in agricultural pest management, the economists concede that identifying benefits of UC research specifically is not a perfect science. Pinning down the cost of research is not easy, but pinning down the benefit side, attributable to a particular research program, is even more challenging.

Benefits vs. cost

“The good news is, the benefits are so large compared to everybody's cost, it's a winner. The only question is how big a winner it is,” Alston said. “There are many other possible causes of productivity improvements, such as research funded by the federal government, other states, the private sector or overseas.”

In calculating the costs and benefits for this project, the economists attempted to take the contributions of these businesses and agencies into consideration. Still, the remaining benefits were much larger than the corresponding UC research investments.

With the current state budget crisis, public funds available for agricultural research are dwindling. However, Alston said he hopes the new report will catch the attention of those with the potential to fund agricultural research and extension. He notes that applied, commodity-specific agricultural research is a natural setting for using a combination of industry and government funding.

The 285-page book is intended for UC scientists, state and federal policy-makers and agricultural leaders. Copies may be purchased online at http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu for $15 each, plus $4 shipping. To place phone orders, call (510) 642-2431.

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