Integrated pest management: good intentions, hard realities. A review

 Jean-Philippe Deguine, Jean-Noël Aubertot, Rica Joy Flor, Françoise Lescourret, Kris A.G. Wyckhuys, and Alain Ratnadass   |  

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)is the model of crop protection that has prevailed since its creation in the late 1950s. IPM has, by virtue of its broad principles, contributed to helping improve crop protection around the world. The objective of this article is to propose a general assessment of IPM. Its concrete implementation in the field is too often still based on the systematic and widespread use of synthetic pesticides. At the end of this review, we propose a change of course in crop protection, in line with the current social, economic, environmental, sanitary, and ecological challenges to tackle in agriculture worldwide.

Sustainability is at the heart of the debates about agriculture debate. However, for several decades, and in particular since the Rio de Janeiro Conference in 1992, it has been recognized that the sustainability of ecosystems in general, and agroecosystems in particular, depends on ecosystem health and functioning, of which the driving force is biodiversity (namely plant, animal and microbial communities—the latter represented by fungal, bacterial and viral organisms). That was nearly 30 years ago and we can make identical observations today.

Today, agroecology provides the main thrust of functional biodiversity to enhance ecological function and the ecosystem services which result from it notably through spatio-temporal diversification of agroecosystems. It is also important that on-farm management action is significant: one can diversify at the extra-field level, but its impacts on-farm are also important and variable.

However, the implementation of these proposals in terms of agricultural practices and the design of agroecological farming systems is still far from being effective in practice, despite investment in research, and in the field despite public policies promoting “greener” agriculture. The lack of practical examples of biodiversity at the service of agriculture is no doubt due to uncertainties about the effects of agricultural practices, the ecological processes and the associated ecosystem services.

Today, intensive farming has been shown to have reached its limits. In pest management, questions relating to the questions of sustainability have often been raised, in particular, the many harmful consequences of the massive use of pesticides: farmers, consumers and society in general face more socio-economic difficulties; there is mounting pollution of water, soil and the atmosphere; biodiversity is being eroded, particularly that of insects and birds.

Researchers are increasingly pointing out the risks and consequences for public health; even human rights are mentioned. This really is the breaking point that must bring about change among farmers. Also, to give more weight to this statement, mankind not only pollutes the planet and puts his health in danger, but the polluters themselves run economic losses. This system cannot be sustainable.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the model of crop protection that has prevailed since its creation in the late 1950s. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) means the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment. IPM promotes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.”

IPM has, by virtue of its broad principles, contributed to helped improve crop protection around the world. These core principles and guidelines of IPM, as clearly defined back in the 60s are the following:

  1. potentially harmful species will continue to exist at tolerable levels of abundance;
    the ecosystem is the management unit;
  2. use of natural control agents is maximized;
  3. any control procedure may produce unexpected and undesirable effects;
    an interdisciplinary approach is essential.

In addition, the main guidelines are as follows:

  1. analyze the pest status and establish thresholds;
  2. devise schemes to lower equilibrium positions;
  3. during emergency situations, seek remedial measures that cause minimum ecological disruption;
    devise monitoring techniques.

Finally, the “IPM pyramid” concept provides a reminder that IPM is not only about “integrating pest management technologies” but that there should equally be a hierarchy or prioritization of practices (in which pesticides are listed as a measure of last resort).

In the absence of this prioritization, one can never achieve sustainable pest management and leave everything to chance while causing unacceptable environmental externalities. However, without questioning the merits of the concept, and beyond its worthy principles, there are grounds today to question its performance in the field particularly when faced with current and future agricultural challenges.

Several problems are highlighted. Indeed, some authors call into question the relevance of IPM in a sustainable agriculture world. These problems include

  1. modest reductions or increase in quantities of pesticides used, contrary to the aim of the past 70 years;
  2. the swarm of definitions and interpretations of IPM, which mean we no longer know what we are referring to when we talk about IPM;
  3. the gap that exists between IPM concepts and practices in the field;
  4. the frequent lack of ecological sciences, although they have been the focus for several decades.

The objective of this article is to propose a general assessment of IPM. Its concrete implementation in the field is too often still based on the systematic and widespread use of synthetic pesticides. To illustrate the gap between the “virtuous” concept of IPM and unsustainable practices, we have borrowed the phrase “good intentions and hard realities” used in the analysis of agricultural extension. At the end of this review, we propose a change of course in crop protection, in line with the current social, economic, environmental, sanitary, and ecological challenges to tackle in agriculture worldwide.

Overall, despite six decades of good intentions, harsh realities need to be faced for the future:

  1. the numerous definitions of IPM have resulted in confusion and different interpretations by members of the profession;
  2. inconsistencies between the concept of IPM and practices and public policies are widely-recognized;
  3. unguided (often prophylactic) chemical control remains the cornerstone of many IPM programs;
  4. the use of chemical control only as a last resort (as per IPM guidelines) is rarely adopted by farmers;
  5. IPM research is often inadequate, both in programs and scientific approaches;
  6. ecology is not sufficiently taken into account in IPM.

Today, IPM has arguably reached its limits and the people who have worked in IPM, including the authors of this review, have completed their mission. Recent years have seen emerging calls for a “green revolution,” biodiversity-friendly agriculture, transformative change in global food systems, or the need for sustainable food production to enable all to benefit from healthy diets.

We now believe a change of course is necessary: an intellectual revolution and a break with current practices. Generally, concepts evolve in small adjustments and turns, but sometimes a genuine revolution is necessary, i.e., when a concept no longer suits the context and challenges of a sector. This requires a paradigm shift: a new, defined and recognized scientific concept, bringing together a large number of researchers espousing the new approach and proposing new solutions to the problems encountered by farmers in the field.

Like other authors, on the ground it seems to us that radical changes in crop protection are now needed, instead of the small adjustments made to IPM, which supported various forms of agriculture, including intensive agriculture, based on monoculture and large quantities of inputs, particularly pesticides.

Agriculture is today faced with severe ecological, sanitary, social, economic and environmental challenges. We are proposing a paradigm shift by endorsing the universal adoption of Agroecological Crop Protection (ACP)—the application of agroecology to crop protection. Like agroecology, ACP has three aspects: it is an interdisciplinary science; an organized strategy of agronomic practices; a form of social ecology combining the stances and interactions of food system stakeholders.

The transition from IPM to ACP requires both words and action. Unlike IPM and its countless variants, which are “pest-oriented” (Pest Management), ACP is “crop-oriented” (Crop Protection) and implies a systemic approach (cropping system-oriented). ACP clearly indicates a direction of travel where ecosystem services are promoted, a holistic approach with priority given to the design of ecologically healthy agroecosystems. Crop protection is built on bioecological balances arising from multiple interactions between the plant, animal, and microbial communities present in agroecosystems (both in and above the soil). As such, crop protection takes priority in crop system management, whose aim is to produce healthy plants in robust agroecosystems.

Finally, ACP also represents a profound change in scientific approaches, crop protection and its associated measures. Redefined and sustainable research programs and approaches and a broad and systematic phytosanitary strategy in the field are vital to agroecological transition. Replacing conventional chemical control (Integrated Pesticide Management) is not a simple question of improving its efficiency or substituting it with other methods, including biological control, in a curative approach.

The objective is to apply truly profound preventive ecological solutions, by redesigning cropping systems, even if some authors advocate modification of crop succession as an essential element of crop control in IPM strategies. This alternative can make use of biological control, especially conservation biological control, which significantly contributes to restoring agroecosystems regulation.

However, a broader issue is the redesign of socio-technical systems, from field to market, within food systems. In the momentum of food system development underlines the need to consider social ecology, in addition to organic and agronomic ecology. This is confirmed to facilitate the transition to sustainable food systems.

In this redesign, crop protection is only one component, and it is subdivided into two stages: i) deconstruction of the pesticide-based pest management plan and ii) introduction of a new management scheme for the agroecosystem, consistent over the entire food system, and focusing on biological, agronomic and social ecology.

The objective is the creation of healthy ecosystems and productive, sustainable, fair and resilient agroecosystems, based on optimized interactions between plant, animal and microbial communities, which contribute to crop health. As a consequence, the large reduction in pesticide use observed in full-scale experiments is no longer seen as an objective, but simply as a positive effect of a healthy agroecosystem. Finally, healthy agroecosystems intentionally safeguard the ecological resilience of farming systems and are a core constituent of sustainable food systems.

Read the study:
Deguine JP, Aubertot JN, Flor RJ et al. (2021) Integrated pest management: good intentions, hard realities. A review. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 41, 38.


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