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Insects or Pests? Only practice decides

Insect behavior is largely decided by farming practices. Both plants and insects are mutually dependent. While plants provide food to insects, insects provide the necessary ecological services to the plant. Farmers therefore need to manage cropping as a part of a larger ecosystem management. This requires deeper understanding of the relationships of various living forms in an ecosystem.

Woman youth showing the intensity of sucking insects trapped

Woman youth showing the intensity of sucking insects trapped

Biodiversity is important in any ecosystem as it increases the productivity of an ecosystem and forms an integral part of food chain and natural cycles of that particular ecosystem. In an ecosystem, each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play.Crop ecosystem is also one such ecosystem which survives on biodiversity of biotic species on the farm like, earthworms, amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds, etc. Being interwoven and interdependent in the food web, understanding their roles and using them to our advantage to get the best crop output, is what is needed.

Owing to lack of understanding of the role of insects in a crop ecosystem, we see them transform into pests, all the time, driving all our resources in eliminating them, most of the times in a manner detrimental to other forms of life. Many times, we have managed to transform an insect which occasionally attacked plants into a major pest.

For instance, the Cotton Mealy bug since 2007 is considered as a severe pest attacking not only cotton but many other crops like tapioca, papaya, ornamentals etc., in south India. The question here is, how did this insect suddenly turn into a serious pest which was not reported during earlier years. It was never considered a serious pest on cotton. Our faulty cropping practices must have been the reason.

Most often, insect attacks are not the ‘problem’ but a ‘symptom’ indicating a deeper problem, like nutritional deficiency. When both soils and plants are weak in nutrition, they invite pest attack.

Similarly, the climatic variation also influences the occurrence of insects and their function. It is important to look at crop health holistically rather than try to address the issue of pest attack separately.

Behavioral roles of insects are largely decided by farming practices. Quite evidently, we find more pest attacks on farms using high external inputs compared to those which follow sustainable agriculture practices. Farmers therefore need to manage cropping as a part of a larger ecosystem management. This requires deeper understanding of the relationships of various living forms in an ecosystem.

Learning to farm

Most often, insect attack is not the ‘problem’ but a ‘symptom’ indicating a deeper problem, like nutritional deficiency. When both soils and plants are weak in nutrition, pest attack is inevitable.

Increasingly farming households in Pennagram taluk of Dharmapuri are being headed by women, owing to men migrating in search of alternative livelihoods. Lacking access to resources and knowledge on farming, left on their own, women are managing their farms based on what they know and what they have seen and learnt from their elders.

At this juncture, AME Foundation tried to address this issue by increasing women’s access to knowledge on farming and their ecosystems, thereby making them more capable of taking decisions on farm for harvesting better yields.

Around 25 young farm women from 5 villages of B.Agraharam, Gowrisettipatty, Germalampatti, Rangapuram, Kattunayakanahalli in Pennagram block were trained on understanding farm ecosystem through Farmers Field School (FFS) methodology. Enhancing analytical and decision making capacity with skill upgradation was the prime focus of FFS. Farmers adopted LEISA alternatives while using lesser external inputs for sustainable production.

Around 25 young women from 10 villages of Pennagram block volunteered to form a group for learning purpose. They were trained for a period of 15 days on ecological management of crops and also the facilitation methods for organising farm schools in their villages. These trained women in turn conducted FFS in 5 villages involving 100 women farmers. Earlier, the women who were members of self help groups were only involved in saving and lending activity. The idea of FFS was accepted with great enthusiasm as the women were eager to learn about better farming methods.

FFS provided a good platform for these women to share and discuss about their problems in high input agriculture on a weekly basis. The women decided to meet during 8-10 in the morning, keeping in view the other household responsibilities. The FFS was carried out over a 6-month period during July 2011 to January 2012 during which the members learnt a number of aspects related to ecological crop management, starting from land preparation to crop harvest. Of the five FFSs, two were focused on groundnut crop and the remaining three on cotton with overall dry land production system approach in focus.

In all the FFS, simulation studies like insect zoo, short and long term on-farm experiments with non-chemical methods to control pest, bio-fertilizers application, cropping systems, soil and water conservation practices etc., were covered. There was a high level of participation by women in all the FFS.

Understanding insects

LEISA is recognized as agriculture based on agro ecological principles worldwide. Ecological agriculture which is gaining increased attention worldwide is primarily based on holistic principles, caring and nurturing the components of nature, their relationships and healthy balances. This means better management of natural resources and cropping systems through eco-friendly options while being environmentally safe, enabling better plant growth, resulting in better yields and net incomes. Moreover, often, eco-friendly alternatives evolve from local adaptations (eg. Local plant extract serving the purpose of a harmful chemical pesticide) through the ingenuity of the farmers themselves.

The FFS sessions promoted durable group learning process. The young women learnt about many aspects related to pest management, like the functional role of insects, their behavioral patterns and services to eco-system for the crop output. Innovative experimental studies like ‘insect zoo’ were created.

For observation purposes, one square meter of the field was marked with erected mesh. For close and continuous observation, potted groundnut plants were also maintained.

Members observed that in the one-square meter earmarked area of groundnut crop, the sucking pests ‘Aphids’ appeared more under irrigated conditions. They understood that as the nitrogen application was more under irrigated conditions, the plant sap was high, inviting aphids, the sap sucking insects. On the other hand, in case of dry land condition there was no application of fertilizer and as such the number of aphids found was very few.

The beneficial insects are many in cotton based farming system. Generally cotton is grown with commercial motive with higher external inputs therefore the insect’s occurrence and their attack are also high. But, equally important to note here is there are many insects that play predatory role on insects of those pestering on cotton crop. Insects like Syrphid fly, Green lace wing, lady bird beetles play a very effective beneficial role in cotton production environment. They prey on sucking pests like aphids, white fly, jassids, mealy bugs etc. and protect the crop. Generally, these beneficial insects are more virulent, having good flying capacity, ability to move faster and predate on sucking pests which are less mobile like in case of aphids and jassids or immobile like in case of mealy bug.

Table 1: The sucking insects and moth trapped through non-chemical method
Villages Pheramone traps (15 nos.) Yellow sticky traps (50 nos.)
adult traped
adult traped
Jassids White fly Thrips
B.Agraharam 843 15 680 414 56
Gowrisettipatty 220 9 592 212 98
Kattunayakanahalli 360 17 641 203 114
Rangapuram 362 4 318 154 47
Germalampatti 228 11 409 183 37
Total insects trapped 2013 56 2640 1166 352

One of the experiments in the FFS helped women understand the interactions between pest and predator. The potted plants in which groundnut crop was raised were covered with a mesh. Aphids and Lady Bird Beetles (LBB) were released inside the mesh. Participants observed that LBB started piercing into the stomach of aphids to suck the juicy content and gradually consumed the whole body of aphids.

To educate the women as to how every insect attack is not harmful to crop growth, an experiment was laid out on leaf cutting in cotton field. The leaves of cotton plants in selected rows were removed by 50%, 75%, 100% and 0% of leaf area during vegetative stage. Members were asked to observe and record the growth till the harvest. Participants observed that all those plants with their leaves cut to different extent were compensated with new leaf growth. There was no difference observed on the yield parameters like number of flowers and bolls per plant, between leaf cut plant and control plants. They learnt that the plants had inherent capacity to withstand leaf loss through compensatory ability. Members concluded that there was no need to take up pesticide sprays the moment they see a pest, as they have always been doing.

They learnt about the concept of Economic Threshold Levels (ETL). In context of ETL, they also realized that insects being part of food web have to get their food from plants only. If the production practices are eco-friendly and optimum, then the insects also lead their life drawing nutrients from plants causing no damage while providing the ecosystem services like pollination.

Members also learnt the non-chemical methods to manage pests in case they crossed a level where they could cause damage to crops. They prepared locally innovated yellow sticky traps, pheromone traps and created a conducive micro climate conditions at the farm level. While trying out different coloured sticky traps, they observed that the yellow colour attracted the maximum number of sucking pests like aphids, jassids, white flies etc.

Looking ahead

Agriculture practices mostly decide the role of insects. Both plants and insects are mutually dependant. While plants provide food to insects, insects provide the necessary ecological services to the plant. With a strong belief that “only insects are born and not pests”, these young women are moving ahead confidently by adopting sustainable agriculture practices on their farms. Also, they are taking others along, in their ecological journey.

J Krishnan

FAO trained FFS Facilitator
No.257/27, Bharathi Nagar, Chinnathirupathi Post, Salem – 636008
E-mail: josephkrish@rediffmail.com