Thursday, February 1, 2024

Reframing the Concept of Pests: Pests are Thieves

by Steve Elliott

Western IPM Center


The gap between what the non-farming public thinks about pests and what farmers know about pests is a mile wide.


For those working in the public integrated pest management enterprise, that was one of the key findings of a social science research effort designed to create greater public understanding of agriculture in America. Called the Farming and Food Narrative Project, the effort took a deep dive into what experts know about farming and what the public thinks it knows about agriculture. It looked at the prisms through which the public views farming and developed reframing strategies designed to bridge those gaps when communicating to the public about agriculture. (Learn more about the Farming and Food Narrative Project)


And one big issue illuminated by the project is the difference between the way non-farming people see pests and the way farmers see them.


And it makes perfect sense. Most Americans experience pests in a fundamentally different way than farmers do, and recognizing those differences may help us talk about pests and pest management in a more productive way. 


At least, as the communicator for the Western IPM Center, that’s what I’m thinking and trying.


For individuals, pests are a usually an icky, inconvenient nuisance with occasional but limited economic impact. They’re like a stone-chipped windshield – likely to happen eventually, annoying and more expensive than you want, but never a fundamental financial threat. No one is going to dock my paycheck 30 percent if I get ants in my dog food.


Farmers have a completely different relationship with pests.


For farmers, pests are a predictable, inevitable and inescapable existential threat. Growers literally bet the farm on their ability to manage insects, diseases, weeds, nematodes and vertebrate pests – and all their possible combinations, vectors and interactions – successfully and economically over the long term.


And ag journalists and university communicators don’t explain that well. Too often we assume our audiences understand why pests are a problem and don’t explain their impact at all. Or we use phrases like crop damage or yield losses, which don’t clearly spell out the real economic costs those terms imply. And, if we do talk about the costs of pest control and pest damage, we usually put it in terms of growers’ profits which doesn’t connect to consumers and creates a them-vs.-us dynamic.


So, using the reframing principles employed by the Farming and Food Narrative Project, I’m exploring a new way of talking about pests that connects individuals’ and growers’ economic experiences:


Pests are thieves. Pests steal.


When pests destroy crops in the field, they’re stealing from farmers and consumers alike –

and from all the field workers, truck drivers, processors, wholesales and grocers in between. Pests make food less available and more expensive for all of us and we all share that economic loss. We’re all stolen from.


Casting pests in this light creates a common enemy for growers and consumers, connecting our interests. It gives communicators an opening to talk about the diversity and complexity of agricultural pests and the need for diverse and effective and evolving pest-management tactics equal to the challenge. By showing pests are a shared problem, it invests everyone in supporting solutions. 


By talking about pests as thieves, it also creates an opportunity to explain integrated pest management in a more productive way. The food narrative project found the general public thinks of pest control only as chemical pesticides, which is like thinking of theft control only as incarceration. But people do understand there is a lot that can be done to prevent theft and that planning, deterrence and monitoring up front can reduce the need for apprehension and incarceration after the fact.


IPM, then, is pest-theft prevention – deterring, avoiding and monitoring pests to reduce the need for biological, mechanical or chemical suppression. Thinking about it as a description to introduces people to the concept, we could try something like this:


Integrated pest management is the science of pest prevention, monitoring and ecologically conscious control of harmful insects, plant diseases, weeds and other crop-stealing organisms.


Or, more simply:


Pests are thieves and IPM is the science of preventing thieving pests. 



What do you think? Reply in the comments or email me directly at


yaybeetle said...

I love this, Steve. I think you are being too nice to them, though. While people theoretically don't like thieves, they aren't that scary - not as scary as the way I feel pests are. Look at how companies are just allowing thieves steal from their stores because it's not worth going after them. Food for thought. :-) Love to see you writing commentary again.

Carrie Jensen said...

I think this works for agriculture, but I work mostly in urban IPM. We're trying to teach people to be more tolerant of landscape pests, at times. For example, you may want to accept some insect damage on landscape plants because those insects provide food for urban birds. Pest aren't always thieves, when we look at larger ecological systems.

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