'Treat IPM as a complex social system'

In a perfect world, integrated pest management, or IPM, reduces damage caused by pests, reduces impacts on the environment, and saves farmers money. Using IPM techniques including crop rotation, biological control, and pest monitoring, farmers have saved billions of dollars both in crop losses as well as pesticide costs while reducing negative environmental impacts. Sounds great right? So, why aren’t all farmers embracing IPM?

Why some farmers choose not to practice IPM, and why IPM doesn’t always work as predicted, are some of the questions that Roger Magarey, Ph.D., and his colleagues at North Carolina State University and Texas A&M University hope to answer by considering the “people factor” in IPM. In a new article published in February in the open-access Journal of Integrated Pest Management, Magarey and co-authors make the case that treating IPM as a “social ecological system” can help improve pest management outcomes and convince more farmers to use it.

Pesticides have played a part in making food cheap and plentiful in many parts of the world, but that abundance comes at a price. Pesticides cause an estimated $10-35 billion dollars of damage to human health and the environment in the U.S. each year. Yet, some farmers’ pest management decisions are more influenced by pesticide marketing and market forces than by these impacts. Traditionally, agricultural extension offices have provided information and support for farmers using IPM, but, as funding for these programs declines, more farmers rely on recommendations from agrochemical companies themselves. In addition, many agricultural companies now sell “farm management systems,” which include coordinated seed, pesticides, fertilizers, and post-harvest treatments for a crop. These integrated systems may limit farmers’ ability to use IPM strategies.

Pesticides are also political. Public concern over the impacts of pesticides on health and the environment, along with lobbying by environmental groups, can lead governments to deregister effective pesticides. Agrochemical companies lobby governments as well, pushing for fewer regulations on pesticide use and continued registration of new and existing pesticides. These forces in society at large also influence farmers’ pest management decisions.

“There is a real concern both in academia and in industry that declining social acceptance of pest management could result in negative impacts for agriculture,” says Magarey. “There have been substantial efforts to understand how social factors impact IPM adoption. We hope that using the Social-Ecological Systems framework can help researchers better understand how to improve IPM adoption.”

A social ecological system (SES) is a complex system that meets five criteria. First, there is a sustained interaction between biological or physical factors and social factors. In the case of IPM, this would be pests, management methods, and farmers’ decisions. Second, an SES acts on multiple scales in time, geography, and organization. For IPM, these could be seasons versus years, individual farms versus regions, and so on. Third, these systems must involve critical natural, economic, or cultural resources, e.g., food crops, pest management expenditures, or farming traditions. An SES also includes external forces such as politics (which can affect pesticide regulation) or climate change (which affects pest populations and more). And, finally, an SES is dynamic and requires constant adaptation—which is the nature of farming itself, and an essential element of IPM.

All of these interacting factors may sound like an unsolvable tangle, but the authors point out that tools exist for explaining the behavior of these systems, such as heuristics (colloquially known as a “rules of thumb”) and mathematical modeling. For instance, Magarey says one of the greatest challenges in getting farmers to adopt IPM is finding the right incentives. He and his co-authors cite an example where researchers used an SES framework and mathematical model to determine the optimal combination of taxes and subsidies to encourage Thai vegetable farmers to use IPM while maintaining farm income and significantly reducing the use of pesticides.

“We hope this article raises awareness of the importance of social acceptance in pest management along with the idea that research can help improve it,” says Magarey. He and his colleagues are working on future papers examining eco-efficiency of IPM and business strategies to reduce reliance on pesticides as the primary pest management tool. Integrating the “people factor” in our integrated pest management strategies can benefit farmers, the environment, and society as a whole.

Photo credit: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.

03/12/2019 - Meredith Swett Walker/Entomology Today

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