Nature never stands still. On the farm, change is the only constant. Pests, including weeds, diseases, insects and nematodes, are always evolving. Farmers have to use every tool at their disposal—knowledge, experience and technology—to stay a step ahead of pest threats that can devastate whole harvests. It’s a constant game of chess that requires thinking many moves ahead.
Because nature always seeks a path for survival, pests can never be eliminated—and we wouldn’t want them to be. Pests are a vital part of nature’s interdependent, complex system. Farmers know pests will always be part of the picture, and the right solution is one where agriculture and nature can exist in balance. Integrated pest management (IPM) is a pest control approach that gives farmers choices and strategies to take on important pest pressure issues in ways that benefit farm economics and the natural world.
Pests will always adapt to whatever control practices humans try to use against them. And pests can evolve quickly. Some insects, like aphids, have such short lifecycles, they produce dozens of generations in a single season. Each generation gives pests an opportunity to adapt.
Farmers respond by changing up their pest control approaches to keep up with evolving pests. There are many ways to reduce and slow the development of resistance, with actions like:
Farmers may use some, or all, of these techniques within a season or choose different approaches from year to year to address the risk of resistance. In an IPM strategy, pesticide use is only recommended when pests reach thresholds for economic damage.
Since IPM helps farmers take targeted action to control pests, it also helps ensure the landscape remains more biodiverse. Biodiverse environments provide more homes for beneficial organisms, which can naturally reduce pest populations. For example, a biodiverse environment can provide more homes for beneficial insects that prey on damaging ones. Where beneficial vegetation is allowed to grow, it can choke out weeds that might otherwise take root. Biodiverse landscapes are also more resilient to the effects of climate—yet another benefit for farmers and the planet.
Weather doesn’t just influence how much rain or sun crops get, but also how much pest pressure they may be under. For example, longer spring rains that push planting later might result in certain weeds emerging before the crop canopy can deprive them of sunlight. Soils that stay wetter longer can give some crop diseases the perfect environment to thrive. IPM helps farmers address these in-season challenges by encouraging long-term recordkeeping that lets farmers track trends around pests and weather on their farms over multiple years. Patterns may emerge that let a farmer know when a different cultivation technique is needed, or if this year might call for an application of fungicide to keep disease at bay.
Pest pressure is also influenced by long-term global climate change, particularly rising temperatures. Warmer temperatures can allow insects, diseases, fungi and weed seeds to persist—worsening pressure over time and allowing new pest species to become established. When weather patterns change, insect pests may expand into new geographies and interact differently with their host plants,1 taking up residence in fields earlier. Climate volatility also can influence farmer behaviors and practices, leading to earlier planting or managing fields for a second crop.
IPM helps farmers be more resilient by adapting to the changes in pests and farm management that come along with a changing climate. In an IPM approach, farmers are encouraged to look beyond on-farm trends to see how global weather patterns and pest pressures are changing. With IPM, farmers may need to learn about entirely new pests, or reevaluate crop growth phases and insect pressure timing. Some threats may be lessened, while others will increase. IPM provides tools and practices to help anticipate those changes and take appropriate actions.
An IPM approach can be more strategic and successful when farmers have access to technologies in two important ways. First, because IPM is all about having information to make good decisions, farmers need access to technology that helps them gather useful data.
Advanced technologies like drones, satellites and sensors help farmers better measure and predict pest pressures. These technologies are becoming less expensive and more available every year. Scouting drones, once a novelty, are now commonplace in the skies over many farm fields. And for a growing number of farmers, information to help with IPM decision making is as close as the phone in their pocket. Today, the agriculture industry is focused on making these technologies more accurate, precise and available so that farmers all over the globe can use them in operations large and small to assist with IPM.
For an effective IPM approach, farmers also need access to crop protection technology. Products are always improving, but new pesticides take decades to develop and bring to a global market. When an IPM approach dictates that pesticides are appropriate to use, it’s vital for farmers to be able to choose from effective products that complement both IPM and the way they farm. Companies like Corteva Agriscience are continually working to bring farmers new products that have lower use rates, new and additional modes of action and an overall smaller environmental footprint—all of which complement an IPM approach. The more choices farmers have, the more moves they can make against pests and the better decisions they can make for the long-term benefit of the land.
When it comes to pest control, farmers not only listen to what their fields are telling them, but also to what consumers and regulators are saying. Farmers can only use processes and products that meet regulatory requirements, which are put into place for the health and safety of people and the environment.
Farmers must also take into account the wants and needs of their customers— which includes food chain operators (distributors, grocers) and, of course, the people who ultimately consume the food they produce. Farmers understand that a growing number of consumers want to know more about where their food comes from and how it’s grown. That includes understanding pest control measures. IPM helps farmers meet these demands by giving them lots of different tools to use for pest control, only some of which are crop protection products applied in the field. Even when products are used, farmers have a large range of options, including products derived right from nature, such as biologicals. Farmers can also choose pesticides, like those developed by Corteva, that can have a lower environmental impact. With IPM, food chain customers and consumers can feel more confident about how food is grown and what’s on their tables.
Farmers will always face pest pressures in their fields. They must work to manage them in consideration of many other factors, too, including marketplace needs, climate and access to technology. IPM gives farmers strategies to anticipate, address and advance pest control on the farm in the face of these many challenges. It’s in the nature of pests to be attracted to farm fields, where food, nutrients and shelter abound. With IPM, farmers can balance those natural processes with protecting their own livelihoods and the food supply we all depend on.
1 Skendžić, Sandra, Monika Zovko, Ivana Pajač Živković, Vinko Lešić, and Darija Lemić. “The Impact of Climate Change on Agricultural Insect Pests.” Insects 12, no. 5 (May 12, 2021): 440. https://doi.org/10.3390/insects12050440.