Agricultural production involves numerous links including, but not limited to, seed screening, fertilizer application, cultivation management, as well as the prevention and control of plant diseases and pests. During the prevention and control of plant diseases and pests, applying chemical pesticides (hereinafter referred to as pesticides) proves to be highly efficient and quick-acting. Therefore, farmers generally use pesticides as a critical means of controlling plant diseases and pesticides [1
]. However, as pesticides have been widely utilized in an intense manner for a long time, their role has transformed from guaranteeing and increasing the production of crops to posing a threat to the quality of agricultural products and food, the safety of the ecological environment, and the health of the people. As the decision makers of pesticide application, farmers have their independent decision-making behaviors on pesticides and the techniques and procedures of pesticide application. Such behaviors not only affect the cost and benefit of agricultural production, but also impose an influence on the number of pesticide residues, the quality and safety of agricultural products, the safety of the ecological environment, and human health. To alleviate the negative impacts that are caused by the unstandardized application of pesticides, it is urgent that we take effective measures to optimize the mechanism of incentives and regulations so that farmers will have more aligned behaviors when applying pesticides. In order to develop an effective intervention that facilitates standardized pesticide application, it is important to examine the factors influencing farmers’ standardized pesticide application.
Previous studies on farmers’ pesticide application tend to focus on analyzing the influencing factors and mechanisms of application behavior. In sum, previous studies have explored the topic primarily from three different perspectives: (i) Farmers’ characteristics, which can be divided into two aspects, namely, individual characteristics and attitudes, and psychological perception. The studies on the former aspect have explored factors such as education level [2
], age [3
], and gender [4
], whereas the studies on the latter aspect have examined risk aversion [5
], and cognitive attitudes toward the behaviors of pesticide application [7
], as well as their links with the behaviors of pesticide application. (ii) Situational factors. The factors involved in the studies that have been conducted from this perspective cover four aspects, namely, the market demand for the appearance of agricultural products [8
], the regulatory policies concerning the management of the pesticide distribution [9
], the activities related to the marketing of pesticides [10
], and training on the knowledge and techniques concerning pesticide application [11
]. (iii) Economic factors. The studies that have been conducted from this perspective have explored the impact of national economic development [12
], the price/performance ratio of pesticides [13
], and the guarantees for market returns on pesticide application [14
In terms of the economic factors, the impact of the market returns on pesticide application has already been demonstrated. However, the existing literature primarily discusses farmers’ irrational behaviors when they apply pesticides excessively and offers explanations of such behaviors from the perspective of rational behavior in the pursuit of market returns. However, these studies tend to focus less on the impact of market returns on regulating pesticide application during the agricultural production. In addition, as society continuously evolves, people will not only focus on their own economic interests, however they will also attach greater importance to align themselves with social value standards and ethical norms, thus reflecting more normative and rational characteristics [15
]. Therefore, external normative constraints may prove to have more critical implications for farmers to engage in and adapt to the regulations on their behaviors of pesticide application.
When studying the impact of information and risk on farmers’ adoption of technologies, Wang et al. (1996) pointed out that due to the incomplete dissemination of information, farmers in impoverished areas of China still encounter massive subjective risks when making decisions about technology adoption [16
]. As many of the farmers residing in the poverty-stricken areas have an insufficient understanding of the effects and content of the technologies, they either forsake or postpone the application of new technologies. Negatu & Parikh (1999) pointed out that the information channels, capabilities of gaining access to information, and subjective risk factors of farmers pose a major influence on their application and their learning of water-saving irrigation techniques [17
]. Providing adequate information on the technologies to farmers can help to reduce their uncertainty of the technical performance, narrow the scope of subjective variability of their self-judgment, and optimize their behavioral decisions [18
]. The subjective cognition of farmers on the risks and uncertainties that are involved in pesticide application will significantly affect their spray behaviors, and their cognition is mainly formed through the transmission of relevant information. Therefore, to some extent, the results of regulating pesticide application depend on the efficiency of the transmission of information.
However, the relevant existing literature has limitations in that they tend to focus on farmers’ behaviors of pesticide application under the constraints of risk perception. From the perspective of information symmetry, we attempt to shed new light on farmers’ behaviors of pesticide application by conducting in-depth research on the motivation behind pesticide application. As a result, this paper leads to a basic understanding: regulating pesticide application is in essence consistent with the long-term interests of farmers with almost no risks at all. In case farmers have complete mastery of information, they will make the rational choice to standardize pesticide application accordingly. With a high level of access to information, farmers tend to be more rational and objective in the face of market returns and external pressures. On the contrary, with a low level of access to information, farmers will be prone to the huge subjective variability of their judgment on market returns. Consequently, they may dwindle the motivating effects that are created by the market returns on the application of pesticides. In the meantime, they may attach more importance to external pressures while enhancing the corresponding influence on their application behaviors.
This study makes an important theoretical and applied contribution to the literature. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, no research has investigated how information acquisition and external pressure are related to farmers’ behaviors of pesticide application. Thus, in researching farmers’ behaviors of pesticide application, this analysis makes a theoretical contribution to the existing literature on the effects of information acquisition and external pressure. From an applied perspective, the findings of the research have utility for policy makers when adjusting existing policies for regulating pesticide application by farmers. This paper attempts to explore three research questions. First, this paper aims to explore the effect of market returns and external pressure on standardized pesticide application. Second, this paper will examine the influence that is imposed by the level of access to information on regulating the application of pesticides. Third, this paper will testify how different types of information acquisition may moderate farmers’ application of pesticides under the influence of market returns and external pressure. The research framework is illustrated in Figure 1
First, our research findings reveal that the market returns have imposed a significant impact on the standardized pesticide application, which is consistent with the theory of utility maximization. Such an influence also reflects that the current mechanism of a high price for high quality is taking shape in China’s agricultural product market. The pursuit of income from agricultural products constitutes a critical reason for farmers to make decisions on standardized application of pesticides. Similarly, Abara and Singh (1993) found that without a significant difference in outcomes between two options and in the returns from alternative and conventional practices, it is less likely that farmers, especially small-scale farmers, will adopt the new practice [38
]. The effect of external pressure on pesticide application is not significant. The external pressure is less binding on pesticide application because farmers attach more importance to their personal interests and personal value.
Second, the impact of informational factors on pesticide application in the hypothesis of this study has been partially supported, i.e., the information on the application of pesticides significantly affects farmers’ application behaviors. The higher the level of access to information on the application of pesticides, the more inclined farmers will become to regulate their pesticide application. Indeed, another study examining the role of information acquisition on the adoption of new technology also suggested that limited information acquisition is important in explaining the observed lag in the adoption of innovations by smaller farmers [39
]. The result also indicates that farmers’ decision-making behaviors are restricted by informational factors, which result in the non-subjective mistakes that are made by farmers. Unstandardized production behaviors are not only derived from the lower cost of producing food at a lower quality and safety level, but are also based on the assumption that the “rational economic man” might deliberately commit faults. Information is an input that reduces the uncertainty of decision makers. As the information that is collected and accumulated increases, the accuracy, timeliness, and expertise of the information will continue to improve along with the continuously enhanced capacity of decision makers. As the main body of crop production and management, farmers subjectively pursue the complete rationality of economic behavior. However, due to the dispersion of production, the time lag of information transmission, and the limitation of their own capabilities, farmers’ decision-making reveals the characteristics of “limited rationality”. In addition, policy information and market information are not significant for regulating pesticide application, indicating that the external environment for promoting the application of pesticides still needs to be improved. Judging from the perspective of information-related research, the level of access to information and the application behaviors may interact with and promote the growth of each other. Future researchers are advised to adopt a variety of research methodologies to explore the causal relationship between the two stages of behavioral decision-making, which may be one of the directions of future research.
Last but not least, this study has also discovered that the information on the application of pesticides negatively moderates the relationship between market returns and the standardized pesticide application, that is, the more adequate the information that has been obtained, the weaker the positive relationship between market returns and the standardized pesticide application. A possible explanation is that when farmers are more familiar with pesticides or related knowledge, they are inclined to pay less attention to market returns. Instead, they attach greater importance to the consequences of the application of pesticides. The policy information and the market information positively moderate the relationship between market returns and standardized pesticide application. When levels of access to policy information and market information are high, our research findings suggest that farmers can enhance their market returns through leveraging such information. When the access to market information stands at a higher level, the negative relationship between the external pressure and the standardized pesticide application appears to be relatively weak. Such a relationship shows that when the level of access to market information is high, the external pressure is inhibited to some extent, which is consistent with the findings of some studies concerning consumers. As the producers have stronger control over their perceptual behavior, they are less likely to be influenced by social norms. When the levels of access to policy information and the information on the application of pesticides are high, the relationship between external pressure and standardized pesticide application will have a stronger positive moderation role. On the contrary, when such information is less available, the moderation role will become non-significant.