Insect Husbandry

IFPRI researchers are working with farmers in Cambodia to banish harmful insects and promote beneficial ones.

Cambodian farmers are so eager to keep pests at bay that they frequently poison themselves using enormous quantities of pesticides, many of which are banned elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Farmers spray “widely and wildly, with little awareness of the damage to other insects and the environment,” says Wei Zhang, an IFPRI research fellow. “They know they are poisoning themselves, but they spray anyway because for fear of losing yields.” But pesticides aren’t the only way to control pests. Agro-entomologists know that getting farmers to rely more heavily on natural enemies of pests, like wasps, ladybeetles, and spiders, would be better for the environment and for human health. So a group of IFPRI researchers is trying to determine how farmers make decisions about managing pests and what it would take for them to adopt a more ecologically sound approach.

Enlisting Natural Enemies

For natural enemies to thrive, farmers must spray less pesticides and pull some land out of crop production to serve as a habitat. Creating such habitat and jointly managing pesticide use would require an unprecedented level of collaboration among neighboring farmers. To learn about farmers’ familiarity with “good predators” as well as gather data on the farmers’ production, knowledge of and inclination toward risk, bundling of pesticides, and attitudes toward collaboration with neighbors, the IFPRI team administered a survey to 448 randomly selected households across 55 villages. Only 10 percent of farmers, it turned out, knew about the potential benefits of enlisting pests’ natural enemies or the value of keeping some land out of production so those enemies could thrive.

Game Time

With the survey results in hand, the IFPRI team set up an experimental game, designed by Andrew Bell, until recently an IFPRI research fellow and now at New York University. The game was designed in part to reward players who cooperated with their peers for the greater good. In groups of four, 448 farmers played in 112 game sessions. Bell and his colleagues found that group dynamics played a large role in whether farmers were willing to cooperate. In addition, farmers were especially taken with the computer tablets they used during the games. “This was an intensely new thing for them, and their curiosity about touching the screens mapped into how they responded to the different rounds of the game,” says Bell. Their responses, he says, suggest new ways of engaging with such farmers and promoting new thinking. Results of this pilot project will compare information collected in Cambodia with similar data from China and Vietnam to point the way to managing pests more effectively.

Photo credit: IFPRI/M. Mitchell

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