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If IPM works so well, why aren’t developing countries adopting it?

Image courtesy Flickr/karore

Farming on the slopes in Ecuador. Image courtesy Flickr/karore

For the past 50 years integrated pest management (IPM) has become the go-to strategy for protecting crops. Yet, despite the global praise of scientists, politicians and development agencies, IPM remains severely under-adopted in poor countries. Many obstacles–ranging from a lack of training, outreach and technical support, to pesticide industry interference–account for the persistence of traditional, pesticide-intensive, management strategies in much of the world, report a large team of international scientists in PNAS Early Edition.

“Surprisingly, a few of the obstacles prioritized in developing countries appear to be over-looked by the literature,” write the authors, suggesting that further analysis and discussion of the roadblocks they raise could accelerate IPM adoption. And this, in turn, could make things slightly better for just about everyone.

IPM uses a combination of techniques to keep pests at bay. These techniques include biological control, planting resistant varieties of crops, manipulating habitat or altering farming practices. Overall, the goal is to manage for pests long term. Pesticides are used only after it’s decided that they’re definitely needed. If applied, it is with the goal of removing just one target species and done according to strict guidelines designed to minimize harm to the ecosystem, beneficial organisms and humans. “The definitions of IPM are numerous, but all involve the coordinated integration of multiple complementary methods to suppress pests in a safe, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly manner,” write the authors.

IPM provides farmers a low-cost way to reduce the risk of losing their crop. (In developing countries farmers still lose about half of their crop to pests, compared with 25-30% in developed countries.) IPM also allows them to buy fewer pesticides and reduced health risks to their employees. IPM also reduces the environmental and public health risks associated with the heavy use of pesticides.

In 2011, at an international workshop in Ecuador, “IPM in Developing Countries,” attendees spontaneously began discussing why IPM adoption was generally so low. The authors decided to learn more. They surveyed more than 400 people involved in agriculture from developing countries asking them to complete the sentence “One significant obstacle to IPM in developing countries is . . .” This generated about 50 unique responses such as, “The costs of IPM are much more apparent than benefits,” “Farmers have low levels of education and literacy,’ and “IPM is too difficult to explain and understand.” These were ranked for frequency.

They then asked participants to rank each obstacle according to its importance and the ease with which it could be fixed. “The responses showed significant differences between ratings of participants originating from high-income countries and those from developing countries, particularly for ratings on difficulties,” write the authors. “As a group, developing-country participants rated the statement ‘IPM requires collective action within a farming community’ as the most important obstacle.” This ranking starkly contrasted with high-income country participants, who thought it was only the 28th most important obstacle out of 51.

The authors say that researchers have known for years, even before IPM was pushed as a paradigm, that pest management is most effective when implemented collectively at landscape level. “Some pest management decisions are subject to a collective action dilemma,” they write, “whereby the payoffs from adopting a technology depend on whether others adopt it too.”

The authors concluded: “What is interesting is that these issues have persisted as long as they have. Clearly, all the calls for action that have been expressed since the early IPM adoption studies of the 1980s have gone unheard.”

Categories: Sustainability Science and tagged |
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