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Integrated pest management (IPM) in practice: an overview. Featured

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Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an ecosystems-based approach to managing pests. It emphasises reducing the negative impacts of pest management on agro-ecosystems, through using natural pest control (such as supporting a healthy ladybird population, which helps control aphids), improving crop resilience, and minimising the use of pesticides.

IPM was developed in response to the negative impacts of synthetic pesticide use, which makes it particularly relevant for SPRINT’s work. Synthetic pesticides emerged at scale from technologies developed during the second world war, and led to radical changes in agricultural pest management. However, pesticide resistance amongst target pest species and negative environmental and human health impacts associated with pesticide use soon emerged. By the 1950s, practices which align with the modern principle of IPM were being used to combat these impacts, and the term ‘IPM’ coined in the US in 1967.

 Over recent years, the term has been adopted by a broad range of agricultural stakeholders, all supporting its principles. But what is IPM, where did it come from, and what is its significance for the SPRINT project?


Defining IPM
IPM refers to a combination of approaches for keeping pests at a level where they don’t pose a significant problem. Through methods designed to maintain pest populations below a problematic level, IPM aims to minimise the risk of pesticides to human health and the environment. IPM is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and is flexible, allowing for the individual needs of each field. IPM is defined by the European Commission as:

“the careful consideration of all available plant protection methods and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage

the development of populations of harmful organisms and keep the use of plant protection products [pesticides] and other forms of intervention

to levels that are economically and ecologically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment”.

By being flexible in its definition, IPM can allow for approaches to be tailored to specific crops, locations, seasons and weather. However, this flexibility can mean IPM is difficult to understand, and that organisations with different stances on synthetic pesticides can stretch the meaning of IPM to align with their values.


IPM on the ground

Approaches to pest management used under IPM include preventative measures, such as supporting pest predators, using crop rotation to stop the build-up of pests, and selecting pest and disease resistant varieties. IPM involves closely monitoring crops, building insights from this into future practices on-farm. Practices available under IPM to respond to a pest problem include mass trapping, using mechanical controls such as protective meshes, and releasing biological controls such as nematodes.

The IPM Pyramid, showing the many options for pest control available, with chemical control as a last resort. From IPM; Working with Nature, 2019.

Under IPM, minimal quantities of specifically selected pesticides may be used as a last resort to precisely target pests which remain a significant problem after exhausting all these other avenues. Restricting the use of synthetic pesticides to when it is both “economically and ecologically justified” is an EU requirement of practicing IPM. Use of pesticides must be recorded, along with the justification for it, and details of its effectiveness. This knowledge is then incorporated into future pest management approaches on farm.

For some, modern IPM is more technological than ecological. In this case, precision agriculture and digital pest control play a leading role in what IPM means to them. These technologies include drone-based pest detection, smart traps and precision spraying. The intended outcome of using these technologies under IPM is to monitor, predict and target pest populations with high accuracy, maintaining them at acceptable levels and preventing unintended eradication of pest predators with pesticides. Such technologies represent one element of the IPM toolbox, but remain unaffordable and unavailable for many farmers globally, and arguably risk reinforcing problematic power structures in current food systems.


Drones can be used to monitor pest populations on crops, to help improve targeting of pest control activities.


The state of IPM
Since its development, IPM gained traction to a varying degree worldwide. In 2009, the principles of IPM were embedded in EU policy under the Sustainable (Pesticide) Use Directive (SUD). In many countries, however, IPM remains little known. SPRINT partners report this is the case in Argentina, one of our 11 case study countries, and a major EU supplier of soya animal feed. Consequently, whilst the EU has IPM written into its policies, it routinely imports crops produced using non-IPM methods from counties where the risk to environmental and human health remains high.

Studies have identified multiple barriers to the adoption of IPM by farmers. This is reinforced by SPRINT research examining pesticide lock-in and barriers to transition towards sustainable plant protection. Known barriers include difficulty understanding IPM, uncertainty about its effectiveness, and a lack of market support for IPM. In Argentina, progress towards IPM is even less clearly defined. Meanwhile, the EU Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy states that strengthening IPM provisions will be central to achieving its targets on reducing pesticide use and risk.


IPM in Policy
Adoption of IPM principles by EU member states is compulsory under the EU SUD, but this has not been supported by mandatory or quantifiable targets. Approaches to IPM vary between member states, and data on pesticide use across Europe is limited. It is thought that IPM is not comprehensively used, and progress towards mainstreaming it under the SUD has been criticised as limited.

The European Commission adopted the F2F strategy in 2020, which sets a target to reduce synthetic pesticide use by 50% by 2030. This strategy was devised in the context of the growing body of evidence on the hazards pesticides can present to environmental, human, and animal health. Proposals to make F2F targets legally binding under the Regulation on the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products (SUR) were presented in June 2022, and remain in political negotiation.

IPM is unusual in that it is supported as a principle by stakeholders with strongly differing stances on synthetic pesticide use. For example, both Croplife (pesticide industry representatives) and PAN (the Pesticide Action Network) promote IPM approaches. Ultimately, an ambitious approach to IPM is required if the EU is to meet its targets on pesticide use under the new F2F strategy.


Sticky traps are a low-tech solution to pest control and monitoring. They come in different colours, some with specific pheremones embeded, to target different pest species effectively.


Colleagues in the SPRINT team are keeping IPM in mind throughout the project whilst we assess the environmental and human health risks of using various pesticides, and accelerate the transition towards more sustainable pesticide use. The SPRINT project aims to:

  • Fully assess the overall risks and impacts of pesticide formulations, residues and metabolites on the environment, animal and human health.
  • Harmonise data collection approaches to this across Europe through a tested and validated Global Health Risk Assessment Toolbox.
  • Assess the environmental and economic sustainability of alternative pesticide use strategies, co-developing transition pathways towards these with stakeholders.

As part of our research, we are identifying innovative practices to reduce reliance on pesticides. In our most recent report on potential transition pathways to more sustainable plant protection, we investigated the barriers and lock-ins preventing a change in pesticide use, and the risks it poses to environmental and human health. Participants commonly discussed IPM in this work, signalling concerns around the availability, accessibility, practicality, and efficacy of alternatives to pesticides which ensure continuity of yield. Other barriers to IPM uptake were highlighted, including limited markets for alternative crops grown in line with IPM, a sharp focus on short term profitability obscuring longer term farm sustainability. Click here to read the report, or here to view the handy factsheet summarising its findings.

Going forwards, we will be investigating what will enable a transition towards more sustainable plant protection practices. Check out the SPRINT interactive monitoring plan to find out how we are going about this work. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and subscribe to out newsletter on our website homepage to stay up to date with our work.


Further reading
Integrated Pest Management: A Global Overview of History, Programs and Adoption.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the EU’s approach to the sustainable use of pesticides.
European Commission overview of Integrated Pest Management.
UN Food and Agricultural Organisation overview of Integrated Pest Management.
The EU Farm to Fork Strategy; For a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system.
UN Development Programme report on Precision Agriculture for Smallholder Farmers.
How does the digital transformation of agriculture affect the implementation of Integrated Pest Management.

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