Insect pest control – are you advising for today or the future?

Take home messages

● There is a strong social dynamic at play when it comes to adoption of sustainable pest management strategies that must be better understood in order to curb the threat of increasing cases of insecticide resistance.

● The adviser has an important role to play in facilitating long term sustainability of farming enterprises; they need to have a ‘for the future’ focus.

● Motivators other than profit, such as responsibility for land and environment and pride in quality products, are likely to be important behavioural drivers that should be identified and considered within extension frameworks.

● Insecticide resistance management needs to have a foundation in long-term planning rather than short-term decision-making to achieve sustainability benefits.

Background

How old are you? Sorry! Perhaps that is an inappropriate question! But we have a very good reason for asking. There is a good chance that when you were born, your parents or family friends were farming in a very different way. Turn to the person closest to you. Share what you know about how insect pests were managed when you were born. Once you have done that, share with your colleague what pests would have been difficult to manage due to insecticide resistance. You may now have a sense for how much the situation has changed...

Insecticide resistance has been documented as far back as 1914 in the US with reports of farmers experiencing increasing difficulty in controlling an apple orchard pest, San Jose scale, with sulphur-lime. By the mid-1940s, 11 cases of resistance to inorganic insecticides had been documented, and with the introduction of the first organic insecticide (DDT) to the market in 1942 it was not long before housefly resistance was documented in 1947. Since that time, resistance to organic synthetic insecticides has been reported at an increasing rate for most of the chemicals introduced to the market. Globally, there are now more than 580 documented cases of invertebrate pests evolving resistance, and 331 unique compounds for which one or more species have evolved resistance.

The Australian grains industry has an ongoing reliance on limited chemical control methods; particularly the cheaper broad-spectrum chemistries. Therefore, managing insecticide resistance is a major challenge. Currently, insecticide resistance in Australian grains (excluding the grain storage pests) is established in redlegged earth mites (Halotydeus destructor), green peach aphid (Myzus persicae), diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) and corn earworm (Helicoverpa armigera) (McDonald et al. 2019).

Now imagine that the scenario posed in Figure 1 has become our truth. Throughout your lifetime the insecticides that you buy have become less and less reliable each year. Pest control becomes more like a coin flip. How does it make you feel? What has led to this situation?

Figure 1. Historical development of insect resistance and expected future projections.

Values and vision - how can we avoid our worst imaginings?

The GRDC investment ‘Supporting the sustainable use of insecticides and local on-farm implementation of integrated pest management strategies in the southern region’ was initiated in response to the ever-increasing threat of resistance evolution within key pest species in the southern cropping region and more broadly. The Birchip Cropping Group, cesar, SARDI, QDAF, and C-Qual Agritelligence are collaborating to improve industry understanding of insecticide resistance issues, and to develop clear steps to manage resistance in key pests.

We are far more familiar with the evolution of herbicide resistance compared to insecticide resistance. Insect pests are often a sporadic problem within a region, and therefore, are not considered as serious an issue as herbicide resistance. At the annual Crop Protection Forum 2019, run by cesar in partnership with the Australian Herbicide Research Institute and the Centre for Crop Disease Management, researchers, industry bodies and advisers identified insecticide resistance as a sleeping giant with the potential for devastating effects on the Australian grains industry. Why?

The intermittent nature of many insect pests in broadacre agriculture, and knowledge base gaps among the research community and agriculturalists, can result in management becoming complacent and reactive. When management does occur, the application of broad-spectrum, non-selective sprays from a limited selection of mode of action (MoA) groups means that we put immense selection pressure on both the pest intended, as well as those that are not a priority issue but ‘lurk in the shadows’.

To more proactively address this issue, we cannot ignore current challenges in relation to invertebrate pest control, and particularly the management of pesticide resistance, which must be considered when investigating how behaviours may be influenced. These can include, but may not be limited to:

● Growing operations are often large and mechanised.

● The climate is variable, making it difficult to judge the risk of a pest outbreak, and increasing business risk.

● Export requirements for grain quality are extremely stringent, with zero tolerance for live invertebrates.

● Uptake of Insecticide Resistance Management Strategies (IRMSs) and the principles in these IRMSs is slow.

● An increased reliance on seed dressings, which are often neonicotinoids, and the possibility of stronger neonicotinoid restrictions on use in future. This also includes possible future restrictions on other chemical classes.

This project aims to realign the way messages are conveyed about insecticide resistance management, and more generally, about good insecticide stewardship. To date, a number of publications have been produced that highlight the current situation and risks we face, in particular with key pests such as redlegged earth mite, green peach aphid, diamondback moth and to a lesser extent the threat posed by cotton bollworm (refer to the Resources Section within this paper).

Understanding the social dimension

When you stand in an elevator, do you turn to face the doors after you enter or just before you leave (Figure 2)? It is likely your answer will be the former. The floor buttons are usually near the doors and you want to keep an eye on who walks in. It makes sense. But, what about the social element at play? How much is logic and efficiency, and how much is habit, risk aversion and social expectation?

Figure 2. What direction do you face?......... and why?

There is a crucial social dimension at play when it comes to changing behaviours and practices. Cummins (2007) highlights four major factors that influence adoption of new advice and technologies:

  1. The personal and situational (values, motivations, attitudes, financial situation) ;
  2. the   pathway of information delivery (eg. Eg.trusted source of information, style and format of extension etc.);
  3. technology characteristics (complexity of adoption and associated reasons); and
  4. farmer capacity to change (including risk aversion, innovativeness and ability).

Other studies have also highlighted grower characteristics and facilitating factors that influence adoption of new technologies or practices. Findings from these studies include:

Appetite for risk

Appetite for risk is likely to influence motivation to adopt new practices, with the variable Australian climate making it difficult to judge the risk of a pest outbreak. In addition, export requirements for grain quality have a zero tolerance for live invertebrates, further motivating growers to take a perceived low risk approach. However, compiled survey data by Zhang et al. (2019) indicates that grain growers with a history of achieving high yields tend to be more likely to take the risk of adopting a new technology than those that achieve lower yields. Further, Zhang et al. (2019) found that growers with a greater sense of control over farm risks are more likely to take proactive measures to manage crops.

The cost of doing business

Input costs are, of course, significant motivating factors. Large farming operations make regular pest monitoring time expensive, and broad-spectrum chemistry is widely available and often cheaper than more selective options. For cereals, organophosphates and pyrethroids account for >85% of all estimated insecticide applications. In legumes, pyrethroids are by far the most widely used mode of action. Pyrethroids, organophosphates and neonicotinoids are also widely applied in canola crops within Australia (Umina et al. 2019).

Keeping it simple

A 2013 study by Llewellyn points out that ‘Growers with a relatively strong preference for keeping their farming operations simple are less likely to adopt practices that add complexity, such as spatial management. Convenience and simplicity for farm managers are likely to be an increasingly important determinant of the relative advantage of new practices.’

A trusted source

Trusted local advisers are extremely important sources of knowledge and heavily influence crop management decisions. Zhang et al. (2019) has shown that high yielding grain farms were more likely to source information from fee for service advisers as a trusted knowledge broker, than low yielding grain farms. The strong link between independent agronomy advice and uptake of new practices was also identified by Llewellyn (2013). However, use of and access to advisory support can vary between regions.

Knowledge pool

The education level of staff does influence attitude towards adoption of new practices. Having staff with a university level of education is correlated with greater knowledge seeking behaviour, such as attendance at extension events (Zhang et al. 2019). Zhang et al. also demonstrated that having staff with a university level of education was correlated with a higher likelihood of using a fee for service adviser (as opposed to a retail agronomist) and higher relative yield.

Ability and resources

The ability of a farm enterprise to trial new practices and evaluate the benefits of the practice is influenced by the regularity of the pest, cost, rotational strategy, understanding/knowledge of farm staff, access to advice, motivation and skill set of the farm decision maker(s). As suggested by Llewellyn (2013), management capacity and capital constraints are a major consideration in the ability of an operation to uptake new technology. Thus, farm business structures (for example; joint ventures versus independent operations) are an important consideration in the speed at which certain new technologies (precision agriculture) are integrated into farm operations.

Technology type

Australia does not have access to some of the high potential new technologies currently employed overseas. However, Australian grain growers are experienced in keeping on top of certain research and development (R&D) outputs, such as varietal developments and adopting promising varieties quickly. Adoption of automated monitoring technologies and integrated data storage systems are other examples of areas that are being embraced by many Australian growers, although a large number of growers remain limited in ability to adopt these practices due to unreliable mobile data coverage (Zhang et al. 2017).

Comfort and confidence

Prior work by Llewellyn (2002) has shown that R&D information is more effective at influencing grain grower perceptions if there is a low level of associated variance and uncertainty. Further, tools or advice that can be shared with a high level of certainty will stand a greater chance of being adopted if they relate to a topic towards which growers feel a high level of uncertainty.

Prioritisation and attitudes

In terms of invertebrate pest management, the importance that growers place on employing new strategies to manage pests, relative to other crop management issues, such as weeds, must be considered. Zhang et al. (2019) identified distinct differences in how weed management is viewed in comparison to invertebrate pest management. In terms of maximising yield, growers reported that the three key practices that need to be done well are weed control, nutrition and sowing at the right time were essential to good wheat yields (53%-84% of respondents). Pest control was only regarded as a concern for maximising yield by 0-1% of respondents.

Results

Why do you farm? Our investigation into value drivers

Understanding the characteristics of growers who are more likely to adopt new practices is extremely useful for enabling change. However, value drivers (personal motivators) provide the basis for these characteristics. At the commencement of this project it was decided to re-assess how call-to-action messaging was delivered. To undertake this, it was important to understand what value drivers should be considered as a priority when attempting to motivate growers to do (or view) something differently. Therefore, at the outset of this project the team took a deeper look into the value drivers behind why growers farm and what would drive them to adopt a new practice, with a key objective of using findings to aid the project team in developing extension outputs that appeal to these motivators.

Two activities were undertaken to obtain insights into the motivations and the values of growers within the target audience. The first was a series of focus groups held across the GRDC Southern Region. The second was to conduct a short survey designed by Cultural Dynamics Strategy & Marketing Ltd that reveals what they refer to as ‘Values Modes’. With a basis in principles captured by Maslow’s Hierarchy, Values Modes™ was designed using empirical data, gathered from large population surveys to identify 12 discrete psychographic types, to capture values that underpin the decision-making processes of most individuals.

Led by the Birchip Cropping Group and Bruce Howie of C-Qual Agritelligence, the investigation highlighted interest in the employment of more sustainable practices across the industry.

Why do growers love farming?

Results from the study revealed some of the key reasons growers farm (Table 1). These focussed on four areas including:

  1. Responsibility for land and environment.
  2. Continuity of farming and family tradition.
  3. Rewards and demonstration of success.
  4. Passion for agriculture and pride in quality products.

However, in the case of agricultural research, the primary benefit usually pitched to growers around adopting new practices is tied into increased financial returns, whether through yield increases, improved profitability or greater efficiencies, etc. While these benefits are important and should be made evident, they are often not the primary trigger for stimulating interest in a new concept or motivating a change in practice. Sometimes we need to look at the long-term impacts, and motivators to realise and convey that short-term financial gains may risk unintended long-term consequences if not managed carefully.

Table 1. Summary of motivations expressed by growers at each focus group.

Lake Bolac

Birchip

Naracoorte

Hart

Continue family tradition

Satisfaction in running a family farm

Long family history of family farming

Continue family tradition

Love farming - variety and challenges

Enjoy growing things

Passion for agriculture

Love farming

Continuity

Pass the land on no worse, hopefully better

Continuous learning

Future opportunities for the family

Environmental improvement especially now with children

Rewards from meeting the challenges of our environment

Maintaining healthy and sustainable farm

Leave the farm better for the next generation

Satisfying and rewarding

Care of the soil

Big picture, responsible environmental management

Maintain the legacy and hope to make a living out of it

Always being challenged by whatever comes around the corner

Meeting the challenges of every new season

Satisfaction of success Producing quality products

Enjoy the challenge and want to keep improving

Enjoy new ideas but becoming more cautious

Pushing boundaries

Doing things right

Doing the best with what we have

Achieve financial goals

Can make income from what I love

Profitability of a good family enterprise

Try to be profitable amidst the seasonal challenges

Independence - working for yourself

Working outdoors and in the crop

Love being outdoors

 
 

Trying new things and new research

Give back through producing

 
 

Producing quality, market ready produce with safe methods

Seeing crop develop to maturity is exciting

 
 

Analysis and interaction of systems

  
 

Decisions on the fly

  

*It is important to note the repeated usage of the words ‘continue’ and ‘challenge’. These words should be targeted in the planning and delivery of extension and communications to best relate to the key audiences.

Results were analysed by UK business Cultural Dynamics to evaluate individual and community values, resulting in respondents being placed in categories or value modes that sit within three overall motivational levels based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From this analysis, there was a strong representation of responses within the ‘Pioneer’ group (81%). ‘Pioneers’ are likely to have characteristics of high level of self-awareness, ethical behaviours and willingness to push boundaries and as such are the most likely to explore new ideas and practices, particularly if they are likely to contribute to a better environment. There needs to be some consideration to the relatively small sample size investigated here, however other research with larger sample sizes have suggested that Australian growers generally have a higher representation in the ‘pioneer’ group (40.1%) compared with other countries such as the UK and Europe (pers. comm.).

Focus groups readily identified that, particularly amongst those who demonstrate a low level of implementation of integrated pest management (IPM) practices, broad-spectrum sprays are too frequently applied as cheap, ‘safe’ options or as low-cost risk mitigators. Despite good levels of commitment to IPM practices, several focus group attendees did accept that on occasions they found themselves taking that route. This might happen through pressure of work, seasonal conditions or crop condition that did not warrant a more expensive, selective spray. Even so, the general feeling was that the low cost, prophylactic approach is inconsistent with their approach to IPM. It is interesting that the same concerns did not manifest regarding the use of seed treatments. To some extent, seed treatment has become the IPM practitioner’s convenient, prophylactic treatment. Although there were some concerns about resistance, there was a very strong reluctance to manage seed treatments with the same level of commitment as they seek to do with foliar sprays.

This investigation also indicated that growers tend to experience ‘decision paralysis’ because they are faced with an overload of content, and it emphasised the importance of local advisers as trusted sources of information.

The role of the adviser

The role of the adviser has shifted a lot over time. At one stage, growers would often review advisers’ recommendations and would ultimately make their own decisions. However, as the scale of farms has increased, this role has shifted to what we recognise today as a role with increased decision-making influence in crop management, and many farm businesses retain a ‘trusted’ adviser. This was identified by grower focus groups where it was suggested that advisers are a key source of information. This means a significant proportion of decision risk is passed to advisers, and as such it could be seen that advisers now have their own reputation to protect.

It is careless to generalise, as some advisers will advise growers to try new practices and take new risks, but it is likely that the amount of risk an adviser is willing to take will be dependent on the individual. The less risk the adviser is prepared to take, the more likely they will act early to manage pest issues, and the more quickly they will aim to achieve a good result; as such broad-spectrum, non-selective insecticide options will tend to be selected.

When it comes to insect management, taking a risk comes at the cost of high crop losses if things do not go to plan. As such it is paramount that the adviser has a good understanding of the threats on the farm and how these threats may impact on rotational choices. However, there would also be value in the adviser sitting down with the grower to come up with the long-term strategy and align management with sustainability goals and key motivators for the client, as well as identifying risks and rewards. The role of advisers in supporting adoption of long-term sustainable approaches to grain growing should not be understated.

The panel session

While this project included focus groups and surveys to investigate grower value drivers, the important topic of adviser value drivers and challenges remains to be explored using a structured approach. This session will be a first step in delving into this topic and will launch an exploration of how advisers can support transformational change in insect management. It will address questions such as:

● What are the key hurdles and respective actions that advisers, with a long-term view, consider will reduce the pressure on the small selection of insecticides we have available?

● How do advisers align their approach with the long-term views of the farming unit?

● How do they look to change the focus from here and now (this cropping season) to the future?

● Why do you recommend practice ‘A’ over practice ‘B’? In what situations do you provide advice wearing a long-term hat?

● What are the key hurdles to be overcome by advisers in order to make long term decisions with clients?

● How can advisers effectively focus on both the here and now (this cropping season) and the long-term? What is the appetite (and ability) to take a long-term view?

These questions will be explored within the context of a future risk: loss of a product of importance, such as the neonicotinoid seed treatment; imidacloprid. We will also discuss limitations on the status quo and why it will not support farmers in achieving sustainable practices in the long-term.

Conclusion

When it comes to insecticide resistance management, there is a strong social dynamic at play around adoption of sustainable pest management strategies that must be better understood in order to curb the threat of increasing cases of insecticide resistance. To foster this, there needs to be a strong understanding of the key parties involved in on-farm decision making and advisers need to realise they have an important role to play in facilitating long term sustainability of farming enterprises; they need to have a ‘for the future’ focus.

There are many issues however, that limit the adoption of a long-term view and can include seasonality of pests, limited options for management, and demands for high quality products with minimal if any damage from insects or presence of live insects in marketable produce. Extension materials need to acknowledge these challenges, but also recognise that motivators other than profit, such as responsibility for land and environment and pride in quality products, are likely to be important behavioural drivers that should be identified and considered within extension frameworks.

Ultimately all parties; growers, advisers and markets must recognise that insecticide resistance management needs to have a foundation in long-term planning rather than short-term decision-making to achieve sustainability benefits and limit the continued rapid evolution of resistance in key pest species.

Acknowledgements

The research undertaken as part of this project is made possible by the significant contributions of growers through both trial cooperation and the support of the GRDC. The authors would like to thank them for their continued support. We also acknowledge project partners:

Useful resources

McDonald G. Umina P, Lye J, Maino J, Perry K, Baker G, and Angel, K (2019) Insecticide resistance in the southern region: current status, future risk and best management practices. GRDC Project: BWD1805-006SAX. grdc_Insecticide Resistance in the Southern Region

McDonald G, Umina P, Lye J, Maino J, Pirtle E, Perry K, Baker G, and Angel, K (2020) Red legged earth mite best management practice guide - Southern region. GRDC investment BWD1805-006SAX. Hardcopy in print at time of writing, not yet available on website.

McDonald G, Umina P, Lye J, Maino J, Pirtle E, Perry K, Baker G, and Angel, K (2020) Green peach aphid best management practice guide - Southern region. GRDC investment BWD1805-006SAX. Hardcopy in print at time of writing, not yet available on website.

References

Cummins J (2007) Enhancing the adoption of technology by Australian grain growers. PhD Thesis, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, The University of Adelaide.

Howie B (2019) Extension framework. GRDC investment BWD1805-006SAX

Llewellyn (2002) Adoption of integrated weed management practices by grain growers. School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, The University of Western Australia.

Llewellyn (2013) Empirical studies of farming systems technology adoption. GRDC Final Report, Project code CSA00028.

Stoneman P (1981) Intra-firm diffusion, Baysian learning and profitability. Economic Journal, 91.

Umina P, McDonald G, Maino J. Edwards O and Hoffman A (2019) Escalating insecticide resistance in Australian grain pests: contributing factors, industry trends and management opportunities. Pest Management Science, 75(6).

Zhang A, Baker I, Jakku E and Llewellyn R (2017) Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture: The needs and drivers for the present and future of digital agriculture in Australia. A cross-industry producer survey for the Rural R&D for Profit ‘Precision to Decision’ (P2D) project. EP175936, CSIRO, Australia.

Zhang A, Hochman Z, Horan H, Navarro Garcia J, Das BT, Waldner F (2019) Socio-psychological and management drivers explain farm level wheat yield gaps in Australia. Agron Sustain Dev, 39(10).

Contact details

Ms Kelly Angel
Birchip Cropping Group, 73 Cumming Ave. Birchip 3483
0427 564 507
kelly@bcg.org.au
@kangel62

GRDC Project code: BWD1805-006SAX