To reduce plant-protection product use, we need to know what behavioural patterns farmers follow when using plant-protection products in their crops. This was the subject of a study conducted by Agroscope in Switzerland.
Sociological research has shown that farmers’ behaviour is not just determined by rational decisions, but also by routinised actions. Using interviews and a survey conducted among farmers, Agroscope analysed crop protection practices from this perspective. The researchers identified five types of practices. Although several types of crop protection practices can be used simultaneously on a farm, e.g. on different fields or crops, one sort of practice appears to predominate on each farm. The aim of the study was not to investigate how many and which farmers used what practices, but rather to determine which routinised actions are important when carrying out crop protection practices. This would identify tendencies and provide food for thought concerning what policy measures could contribute in given situations to a reduction of plant-protection product use.
Conventional crop protection
With this crop protection practice, farmers rely on tried-and-tested methods and use plant protection products (PPPs) according to a treatment plan or strategy which they develop at the start of the growing year. This strategy is based on their own experience and on advice in many cases obtained from the private sector. Farmers’ personal identities are shaped by their farms and by their produce, which is often produced for the wholesale market and is thus subject to strict requirements. The pursuit of “clean fields” and high yields also plays a role here.
Low-input crop protection
The guiding principle here is the market-oriented strategic development of the farm, which is mainly pursued by producing for sought-after labels like IP-Suisse or Bio Suisse. Farms can benefit from price premiums, so that they can “monetise their ecological value-added on the market”, as one survey participant put it. Direct payments are important for offsetting the risks of reduced PPP use. Pests and diseases are tolerated up to a certain point, partly from the desire to reconcile plant protection with their own and society’s demands.
Crop protection that minimises costs and workload
This practice is based on the idea that crop protection needs to be cost-efficient and must not require a particularly high expenditure of effort. Farmers know how to offset the lower yields of extensive production with saved labour and direct payments. The farms are often run as a sideline, however, and preserving their ancestral land is a prime consideration.
Outsourcing crop protection to contractors
The main interest and competences of farm managers practising this sort of crop protection lie in livestock production or dairy farming rather than in plant production. This means that they employ contractors who tend to rely on synthetic chemical PPPs for crop protection. Outsourcing is associated with high fixed costs for the farmer, making the attempt to change PPP-use patterns financially risky.
Agroecological plant protection
With this practice, crop protection is based on agroecological principles and regenerative agriculture. A frequently stated reason for and aim of this holistic approach is healthy soils as the basis of environmentally sound agriculture. The farmers see themselves as allies of nature. “Work to build, not to destroy” is a typical statement reflecting this approach.
- Crop protection is not “one size fits all” in Swiss agriculture. Instead, it is characterised by a wide range of different plant-protection practices and behavioural patterns.
- These were categorised into five types of crop protection practices. Depending on the type, policy measures for reducing PPP use can be expected to have different effects.
- Financial considerations and competences play a role with (nearly) all groups, which is why targeted financial incentives, initial and continuing training, and advice from extension services are important tools for reducing PPP use. “Soft” factors such as social norms, personal values and one’s identity as a farmer also exert their influence in different ways, however. These may override other factors and must also be borne in mind when evaluating the effectiveness of new measures.