Pesticides kill pests, but they also kill pests’ natural enemies and thus their overuse can harm farmers, consumers and the environment. The first line of defense should be a healthy agro-ecosystem. Specifically, a system that allows organisms, such as predators, parasites, pollinators, competitors and decomposers to co-exist peacefully.
All are components of crop-associated agro-biodiversity and they perform a wide range of ecosystem functions. Generally, the aim of a healthy agro-ecosystem is to manage insect pest populations to the point where natural predation operates in a balanced way and crop losses to pests are kept to an acceptable minimum. Towards this end, a crop management system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has been introduced to local farmers and farming communities, both in Eritrea and around the world.
IPM was first proposed in 1957 as a biological means of controlling pests, coupled with good agronomic practices, instead of simply rushing to invest on pesticides. It is an ecosystem approach to crop production and protection that combines different management strategies and practices to grow healthy crops and minimize the use of pesticides, as formulated by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Globally, many institutions and organizations promote IPM as the preferred approach to crop protection and regard it as a pillar of both sustainable intensification of crop production and pesticide risk reduction. As such, IPM is being mainstreamed within the FAO’s activities involving crop production and protection.
As a first line of pest control, IPM programs work to manage crops, preventing pests from becoming a threat. In an agricultural crop, this may mean using traditional methods, such as crop rotation, selecting pest-resistant varieties, or planting pest-free material. These control methods can be very effective and cost-efficient, and they present little or no risk to people or the environment. Enhancing these processes can significantly increase yields and sustainability, while reducing input costs.
Community IPM on the other hand is the conceptual framework in which field schools are now being conducted by national IPM programmes within the member countries of the FAO regional programme. Community IPM is a strategy in which a farmer field school (FFS) is taken as a first step in the development of sustainable management by a community of its shared agricultural and ecological resources. The goal of this strategy is to institutionalize IPM at the local level.
Community IPM begins with education at the FFS. The next step is the follow-up of the FFS with additional opportunities for farmers to build their skills. These activities further farmers’ learning so that they are able to create their own knowledge through research and to organize groups and activities. The goal of post- FFS activities is to enhance the capacities of farmers to create their own mechanisms to manage their shared resources. Community IPM leads to farmer empowerment, and ultimately seeks to institutionalize IPM at the local level by putting farmers in control of the process of planning and implementing their own IPM programmes.
Understandably, when an agro-ecosystem inclusive approach does not seem sufficient, farmers often respond by seeking additional protection for their crops against perceived threats. The pest management decisions taken by an individual farmer are based on his or her personal objectives and experiences. While some may apply labor-intensive control measures, the majority turn to pesticides. In 2010, worldwide sales of pesticides exceeded US$40 billion, representing a serious threat to the health of farming communities and the broader environment.
However, prior to taking any pest control action, IPM first sets an action threshold – a point at which pest populations or environmental conditions indicate that pest control action must be taken. Importantly, sighting a single pest does not always mean control is needed. The dividing line at which pests are considered to be an economic threat is critical to guide future pest control decisions. This identification removes the possibility that pesticides will be used when they are not really needed or that the wrong kind of pesticide will be used.
Over-reliance on pesticides impairs the natural crop ecosystem balance. It disrupts parasitoid and predator populations, thereby causing outbreaks of secondary pests. It also contributes to a vicious cycle of resistance in pests, which leads to further investment in pesticide development but little actual change in crop losses to pests. As a result, induced pest outbreaks, caused by inappropriate pesticide use, have increased.
Increasingly, IPM has been recognized for its notable successes around the world. Today, large-scale government IPM programmes are operational in more than 60 countries, including Brazil, China, India and most developed countries, including Eritrea. The country, located within the Horn of Africa, has begun establishing its first IPM/FFS in the Southern region as part of its broad agricultural and sustainable development initiatives. Recently, Eritrea’s Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), along with experts from the FAO in Eritrea conducted a training program for 20 farmers and staff from the MoA on crop production and protection.
The program, which was held in Mendefera, the capital of the Southern Region of Eritrea, lays a firm foundation for the establishment of FFS, and allows smallholder farmers an opportunity to share experiences. Speaking at a graduation ceremony to mark the completion of the IPM course that ran from August to December (2015), Mr. Efrem Ghebrekrstos, Governor of the Southern Region, said that the administration highly appreciated the training programs, particularly since the agricultural sector is a mainstay of the country. Mr. Arefaine Berhe, Minister of Agriculture, added that the training program was only the beginning and that activities should be extended every farmer’s field within the country.