University of Arizona
The survey research my colleagues and I have been conducting examines the extent to which growers are adopting different resistant-management best management practices (BMPs). We want to know how often farmers are using these practices. The good news is we found out that most growers were applying most practices most of the time; however, the bad news is that that is not good enough. Many growers are not practicing some very important BMPs. Survey results show that there are many practices that corn, cotton, and soybean growers are using often or always. In fact, there is greater difference across practices than across crops. For example, using different mechanisms of action, cleaning equipment, and supplemental tillage are not widely adopted. The data on cumulative adoption of BMPs—how many growers are adopting how many practices—show that most growers adopt seven or more BMPs often or always. Yet, there are still important BMPs that many people are not using much of the time. From surveys conducted over the last decade we know that many growers have perceptions that discourage BMP adoption. These perceptions include:
- Attribution of spread of resistant weeds to natural forces and neighbors’ behavior
- Belief that individual action has little effect on resistance
- Belief that resistance is inevitable
- A low awareness of how practices affect weed resistance
- A low awareness of the importance of rotating herbicides with different mechanisms of action
- A low concern about resistance
- Confidence that new products will become available
From the 2000s to now, the level of concern about resistance seen in the surveys has been ramping up, which may mean the problem is getting worse, though it also may mean that people are more aware of the issue. The surveys tell us that, in terms of research needs, many growers have perceptions that seem to discourage BMP adoption. Therefore,
it would be useful to know: How pervasive are these different perceptions, how have they changed since the early- to mid-2000s, and how do these perceptions affect resistance management today?
Extension economists often use partial budgeting (that is, returns per acre) to account for growers’ management decisions. However, grower decisions are more complex than that. Decisions depend on nonpecuniary benefits (flexibility, simplicity) to the farmer. Even the direct economic returns are more complex than just a plot level partial budget analysis will show. A model that accounts for the entire household’s well-being provides a better picture of what affects grower decisions, because there are several issues in the farm household at play that are not apparent in a simple budgeting approach. Things to account for include:
- How flexible is the management system?
- How much time does the system require?
- How do regulations and incentives on highly erodible land factor in?
- What kind of equipment does the farmer have (i.e., is the equipment needed for some BMPs available)?
- Does the farmer have the knowledge base for a variety of weed control options?
- Are there management constraints or options related to the ownership of the land?
- Is there urban development pressure (affecting a farmer’s time horizon)?
- How long does a farmer plan to farm?
- What percentage of household income comes from farming?
Furthermore, the benefits of resistance management to an individual grower are uncertain. There may be benefits in the future, and those benefits may be somewhat dependent on what neighbors do, but the costs are certain. Growers have to weigh these uncertain, future benefits that depend on a whole set of contingencies against direct monetary costs of current actions. To deal with that uncertainty, we may have to move away from just looking at short-run profits to something more in the realm of behavioral economics and collective action to understand people’s decisions.
There are useful lessons to be drawn from the Green Revolution about how farmers behave. When the high yield varieties of the Green Revolution became available, they were part of technological packages that depended on complimentary inputs. At the time, it was commonly thought that farmers who did not adopt the new technologies were in some ways “primitive” or “backwards.” Study of the constraints that individual farmers were facing in particular countries or with particular crops revealed that farmers had good reasons for why they were not adopting the technology. Looking at the real constraints that people face, failure to adopt may not result from a lack of understanding. Rather, a farmer’s immediate survival drives what they do. The studies from the Green Revolution also show that adding uncertainty into the analysis improves the explanatory power of economic models. Introducing uncertainty demonstrated the importance of farm size, credit constraints, infrastructure constraints, and the availability of information and opportunities to learn to determine how people were going to adopt technology. It also showed how and what information is provided to farmers is important. It is important to know from what sources farmers are getting their information, how the information source
affects their behavior, and whether farmers are getting a consistent message. Regarding weed resistance management, growers are still getting conflicting messages about the value of certain practices (such as use of below-label rates for herbicides).
There are also lessons to be learned from voluntary environmental programs. The track record of voluntary programs has been mixed, but there are some successes. There is some evidence in the literature that voluntary programs perform better if there is a regulatory option in the background. It might be helpful for extension education to find out what farmers think of particular regulatory options. Growers may respond more favorably to voluntary options if they are made aware that regulatory options are also being considered.
A Miranowski and Carlson paper for the National Research Council’s 1984 symposium1 on strategies and tactics for managing pesticide resistance in insects posed the question: What is the proper division between the public and private sectors regarding resistance management? Instead of assuming resistance is a problem with the private sector that necessarily requires regulation, the paper examined the conditions more favorable to voluntary approaches and those more favorable to regulatory regimes. Looking at the conditions that would predict one or the other, their model successfully predicted why there is a different regulatory system for insect-resistant versus herbicide-resistant crops. They looked beyond farm-level problems and examined the market structure and the pricing of the input supply industries. Input suppliers and growers both want pesticides to stay effective, so they looked at to what extent commonality could be used as a way to structure programs. They also focused on the fact that price is a signal of scarcity. Insecticide prices at the time of the study were not going up relative to other inputs, so the market was not providing growers with any signal that these compounds were becoming scarcer. Applying the same framework today to herbicides, we see that herbicide prices are rising more slowly than most other production inputs, so farmers are not getting any price signal in the market that new technologies are not coming. However, seed markets and chemical markets need to be looked at together because of genetically engineered crops. Seed prices have been going up, so the price of seed may be the signal of scarcity.
The relevant players in improving adoption of BMPs are:
- Growers (large- and small-scale)
- Suppliers of seed, biotechnology, and agricultural chemicals
- Grower associations (national, state, and local)
- Scientific associations
- Weed management consultants and custom applications
- Other custom operations
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1Miranowski J.A. and G.A. Carlson. 1986. Economic issues in public and private approaches to preserving pest susceptibility. Pp. 436-448 in Pesticide Resistance: Strategies and Tactics for Management. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Each of these groups has different incentives. It is important to figure out whether their incentives for resistance management are compatible and what the economic tradeoff is for each group. We know little about the incentives or adoption levels of weed management consultants, custom chemical applicators, custom harvest and other custom operations, and small-scale producers. The susceptibility of weeds to herbicides is a weakest link public good, one whose provision requires the effort and compliance by those least able and with the least incentives to provide it. Smaller-scale producers may have more off-farm responsibilities and may not have the capacity to manage resistance. This is unknown because most of the surveys are based on producers farming more than 250 acres. Growers with less than 250 acres of a crop are 30 percent of corn growers, 23 percent of cotton growers, and 32 percent of soybean growers. That accounts for 15 percent of corn acres, 6 percent of cotton acres, and 18 percent of soybean acres. It is a nontrivial population that we do not know much about.
Another concern is that much of our data on resistance management is quickly becoming dated. There was a relatively large amount of data collected in 2005-2007. However, much has happened regarding resistance problems and resistance awareness since then. We do not know if people are doing anything differently. It would be good to do more work with the USDA’s Agricultural Resources Management Survey to test hypotheses about factors encouraging or discouraging adoption, including grower attributes.
The old paradigm is a product-based solution, in which growers were seen as customers who bought products off the shelf. Weed management is simplified as much as possible. The idea is that new products will always solve old problems, and the goal is to keep new products coming down the pipeline. The new paradigm emphasizes systems and science and will rely on people being more engaged as sophisticated crop managers. Growers in this paradigm are active participants who will not only adopt new systems but also educate technology developers. It involves more knowledge about the overall agricultural supply chain, especially the structure, conduct, and performance of input industries.
There is going to be a challenge related to knowledge sharing. If we have a limited number of mechanisms of action and there are not going to be new ones, then we are going to have to substitute information and knowledge for chemical compounds. In order to obtain that information, we need grower participation and input. But growers will be less likely to provide information if they perceive that the result will be more regulatory actions. They need to see a benefit to participating.
Most growers use most practices most of the time, but that behavior pattern does not promote effective resistance management.
Increased adoption of effective best management practices will require that we move beyond a short-run profit maximization model to understand more complex constraints and motivations driving farm household behavior.
A new paradigm is needed to understand grower behavior and foster a new mindset—one with greater knowledge of the interplay of agroecological, economic, and social systems.
Lambsquarters, common (Chenopodium album), courtesy of the Weed Science Society of America.
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