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Using Sociology—Yes, Sociology!—to Manage Herbicide Resistance

Posted by Katie Dentzman | August 5, 2020

Sociology usually isn’t the first discipline that comes to mind when farmers, weed scientists, retailers, and others think about managing herbicide-resistant weeds. Indeed, it might not be on their radar at all.

At its core, sociology is the study of groups of people. Furthermore, sociologists are interested in how different groups interact with each other, generate social norms that guide behavior, and are constrained in their choices by social structures ranging from the economy to discrimination.

As a sociologist studying the agricultural community’s response to herbicide resistance, part of my goal is to change how people think about the importance of social groups to weed management. While weed science, chemistry, biology, etc. are all obviously important, advances in these areas mean little if the behaviors of farmers, extension educators, chemical manufacturers, and other actors do not change.

In fact, I would argue that, without behavior change, advances in other areas of weed management mean little. New practices aren’t going to be very effective if no one adopts them or—more to the point—if adoption doesn’t meet the critical mass needed to control herbicide resistance on a landscape level.

Basically, if only a few farmers are implementing control measures, their efforts are likely to be negatively impacted by those around them who aren’t doing their part.

There are a lot of reasons for non-adoption of herbicide resistance management practices, with all kinds of valid rationales. Just because someone isn’t “doing their part” doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to be, or that they don’t have the potential to improve. In my research, I’ve talked to numerous farmers who would love to manage their weeds differently but are constrained by economics, farm size, landowners, available chemistries, and more.

A fundamental question is how to draw these actors into the fold, without ignoring or dismissing those who are already engaging in advanced integrated weed management.

One approach I’m planning to test is community-based management. This concept rests on the idea of self-regulation, where communities come together to draw up their own management plans, enforcement measures, and regulations.

Advantages of the community approach include how flexible and adaptable it is to different contexts. A big struggle in managing herbicide resistance is the variability in intensity, weed species, climate, dominant crop type, and other factors that differ substantially by locality.

Community-based management also avoids government-mandated regulations, instead of allowing local stakeholders to decide on the best and most reasonable management practices for their community. Local groups are also responsible for coming up with incentives for adopting these practices—whether they be monetary, prestige-oriented, etc.—and sanctions for those who do not keep up their end of the bargain.

It’s a lot of responsibility, to be sure, but there is evidence that this kind of management is both highly effective (for instance, look up the Arkansas Zero Tolerance Program) and more acceptable to farmers than other types of interventions. Another key component is support from university researchers, extension educators, crop advisors, etc.—given that these individuals understand their supplementary role.

I’d love to start a regional conversation about community-management, hearing from those who agree with me about its potential, and, more importantly, those who don’t. On that note, I’ll leave you with a few questions to contemplate. If you have a moment, drop your response to one or more of these questions in the comments. It would be hugely helpful to hear your perspective as I move forward with this program.

Thanks for being engaged, and feel free to contact me with any questions:

Dr. Katie Dentzman or
(208) 885-0936

Discussion Questions:

  • Why might community-based management be a bad, or just ineffective, idea?
  • Does it actually have transformative potential to help manage herbicide-resistant weeds?
  • What possible problems or difficulties do you see?
  • Does sociology really have a central role in herbicide resistance management?
  • Do you think your community could manage an herbicide resistance program?
    • Why or why not?
    • What kind of support would you need?

2 thoughts on "Using Sociology—Yes, Sociology!—to Manage Herbicide Resistance"

  1. Caio Brunharo says:

    In your experience and by talking to growers, what is the relative importance of the constraints you mentioned above (economics, farm size, landowners, available chemistries etc)? Understanding well the constraints will probably be the first step towards community-based weed management.

    1. Katie Dentzman says:

      Thanks for your comment! In my experience talking to growers, farm size was a very serious concern. Again and again they brought up the fact that with the large farm sizes necessary to make a profit in the industry, chemical weed management was the only viable option. This was also related to labor availability – farmers were having a hard time finding laborers to help control weeds. So they were managing huge amounts of land with very few people. Obviously this leads into a discussion of economics as well, since many of them had very large farms for the purpose of turning a profit.

      The other two big constraints farmers brought up were neighbors and a lack of new chemistries. There was definitely a lot of frustration due to the fact that their own weed management could be reduced in effectiveness by one or two neighbors with weed problems. It ends up feeling like they did a lot of work for nothing, but it was also difficult for farmers to imagine confronting their neighbors about the problem. As far as chemistries, everyone wanted something new, and a lot of people were pinning their hopes on that eventuality. But there was also a good deal of recognition that even with a new chemistry, weed management needs to change and evolve so that we don’t dive right back into the resistance problem.

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