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Why IPM Adoption is Lower in Developing Countries

Ecuador farm field

A farmer in Ecuador applies pesticides to battle insect infestations. Jeffrey Alwang, Ph.D., a Virginia Tech professor of agricultural and applied economics, is lead author on a new report in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management that investigates why farmers in developing countries don’t incorporate of more alternative approaches as part of the strategy known as integrated pest management and offers suggestions about how to increase its adoption. (Photo credit: Jeffrey Alwang, Ph.D.)

By Leslie Mertz, Ph.D.

Despite their utility in protecting crops from pests, some insecticides can have unintended consequences, such as harming important pollinators or other beneficial insects or getting into groundwater or the crops themselves, where they can potentially cause human health problems.

Leslie Mertz, Ph.D.

Leslie Mertz, Ph.D.

In response, government, academic, and public agricultural agencies have encouraged growers to adopt integrated pest management (IPM), which can help to reduce pesticide use by incorporating non-chemical techniques, such as pruning strategies or soil amendments that make plants less inviting to pests, using insect traps that monitor pest populations so growers can be more precise with chemical sprays, or adopting pest-resistant crop varieties.

While most farmers in developed countries have made the change to IPM, those in developing countries have been slower to get on the IPM bandwagon, according to Jeffrey Alwang, Ph.D., a Virginia Tech professor of agricultural and applied economics who has spent decades studying agricultural practices in such places as Ecuador, Guatemala, Uganda, and Bangladesh. In a new report published in April in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management, Alwang and his Virginia Tech co-authors George Norton, Ph.D., and Catherine Larochelle, Ph.D., explore the reasons these growers haven’t adopted IPM and the strategies that might encourage them to try it.

The IPM Issue

Jeffrey Alwang, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Alwang, Ph.D.

An agricultural economist with an interest in environmental issues, Alwang has been a part of research projects showing that IPM manages pests effectively, decreases farmer reliance on often costly pesticides, and yields crops that can turn higher profits while being more environmentally friendly. “But, having done all this research on the economic viability of these IPM alternatives, it has surprised me to find that these practices aren’t more widely adopted in developing countries,” he says.

To get a better picture of farmer perspectives, Alwang pored through dozens of scientific studies on IPM adoption in developing countries. Several things stood out. First, many farms in developing countries are small, sometimes single-family operations that have a great deal to risk by cutting back on time-tested pesticides and trying something new, he says. “They tend to use what they know will work, because a failure has very dire consequences, and may mean that they have to get out of farming or sell the farm.”

Second, IPM is complicated. It requires the farmer to closely monitor temperature, rainfall, pest populations, and other parameters; maintain careful record-keeping; and wade through a jumble of diverse techniques to figure out which make the most sense for their operations. Farmers in developed nations often get considerable one-on-one help from local agricultural extension agents, but growers in developing countries typically have little to no access to similar resources and wrestle with pest-management decisions on their own.

“There are a whole host of reasons farmers don’t use IPM. It’s a complex story,” Alwang says. “There are a lot of agricultural technologies in developing countries that are absolute winners and catch fire and go from one area to another. But, with other technologies, people aren’t confident that they fully understand them and can implement them, so they don’t spread as quickly as we would like.”

Making IPM Farmer-Friendly

One way to encourage IPM use is to make it more manageable. “What we know from our research is that farmers will incrementally adopt things, so if they try something and it works, they may try something else, and may continue to try new things,” Alwang says. “It makes sense, then, to begin with something that you are pretty sure is going to work and is a fairly simple thing to do and build from there.”

Low-cost outreach programs can also help to spread the word. “What we’ve done in Ecuador—and I think we’ve been reasonably successful at this—is we’ve invited farmers to the field to walk through three to four stations demonstrating different types of IPM practices. The farmers ask questions, see the evidence that those practices work, and leave with some fairly simple rules to follow,” he says, noting that these “field days” are developed in concert with the mainly in-country scientists who are part of the country’s National Agricultural Research System.

Following the field day, farmers’ cell phones (which are ubiquitous) receive both general and time-specific text reminders about how and when to implement those IPM practices. “For example, potato farmers might get a text message at certain point in the potato cycle reminding them to look for a certain problem, and if they have it they should do A, B, or C,” Alwang says. Although he doesn’t have hard-and-fast numbers yet, he says the approach seems to be working. “The evidence that I’ve seen—and we’ve tried to be as careful about the science as possible—is that it boosts the adoption of certain types of IPM practices quite substantially.”

The increase in IPM is good for consumers too. “Consumers in developing countries today are much more concerned about problems with pesticide residues or the healthfulness of what they’re eating,” Alwang says.

Overall, he adds, “I think of IPM as a holistic process for identifying and managing pests and diseases while trying to minimize the use of toxic chemicals. Developing countries are areas where IPM solutions are really needed.”

Leslie Mertz, Ph.D., teaches summer field-biology courses, writes about science, and runs an educational insect-identification website, www.knowyourinsects.org. She resides in northern Michigan.

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