How Science is Helping Farmers Stop the Relentless March of Pests

Bill Lingren, founder and CEO of Trécé, Inc., discusses the important role of technology and science in meeting one of the greatest threats to a farmer’s crops – pests and disease.

Food security is perhaps one of the most pressing issues in the world today. Societies that can produce, acquire and consume a sufficient, dependable supply of nutritious food tend to be more stable. But those without that ability—particularly in less-advantaged, largely rural societies—suffer in terms of health, economic wellbeing, and political stability.

Fortunately, a growing suite of agricultural technologies and farming techniques are helping to ensure a more dependable supply of food—both on a large industrial scale and at the smallholder level. Through the application of various new technologies, farmers large and small—in the United States and elsewhere—can increase production, preserve the environment to ensure future productivity, and raise crops more sustainably than in years past. But even with technologies in hand, challenges remain. This is particularly evident in the case of insect pests.

The danger of insect infestations is a matter of growing concern, particularly in the case of crops such as nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Several factors are in play. Changes in climate, for example, are sparking migration of insect pests into regions where they were never before present. Some pests also have expanded their range through international trade by hitching a ride in cargo. And perhaps worst of all, even when a destructive insect is largely controlled through the use of pesticides, a handful of survivors can pass pesticide resistance to subsequent generations of bugs.

Invasive insect species (“invasives”) are playing a much greater role in the economics of agricultural production by significantly increasing damage to a wide range of food and fibre crops. Some pests are already responsible for virtually eliminating the ability to grow certain crops in some U.S. regions, as well as in many other parts of the world.

Fall Armyworm, Nigeria, 2017. Photo credit: CIMMYT.

One of the most destructive invasive insect pests today, the brown marmorated stinkbug (BMSB)—introduced into North America and Europe from Asia more than 20 years ago—continues to pose a severe risk to a wide range of crops, including apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and other stone fruit, grapes, hazelnuts, green beans, eggplant, grapes, okra, peaches, peppers, sweet corn and field corn, Swiss chard and tomatoes, as well as a moderate risk to a host of other crops. The insect has cost growers in the mid-Atlantic region many millions of dollars in ruined produce and has been detected in all but a handful of U.S. states.

But BMSB is only one of many such invasive insect pests. Many others have also been identified in the United States. One of these, the spotted lanternfly, appears to be even more potentially destructive than BMSB. And many other established species are being dealt with on an ongoing basis. These include, but are not limited to, the codling moth, which attacks apples, pears, walnuts and plums; the navel orangeworm, which targets almonds, pistachios, walnuts, figs and other fruit and nut crops; and the obliquebanded leafroller, which strikes not only apples, pears, walnuts and pistachios, but also filberts, stone fruit, berries, grapes, hops and azaleas.

The economic effects of these pests can be devastating—harming the outlooks for smallholder farmers, raising costs to consumers, and often putting healthful food products out of the reach of poorer members of society, thereby putting their food security at risk.

Brown marmorated stink bug.

Fortunately, today’s technology toolbox contains methods of pest control that are environmentally friendly and easily deployed without expensive agricultural equipment, can be used without or in tandem with pesticides, and do not contribute to pesticide resistance. The fact is that these new technologies provide for more judicious use of insecticides. Their benefits include, but are not limited to, surgically precise applications, lower application rates, lower frequency of use, and a greater selection of more species-specific, environmentally friendly and efficient products.

This new generation of products includes species-specific, pheromone- and kairomone-based multi-gender attractants, lures and traps designed to address the threats posed by a wide variety of flying and crawling insect pests that attack standing and stored crops.

These products—which are quickly being adopted as an integral element of sustainable commercial agriculture alongside integrated pest management strategies—are designed to protect food production and stored crops while preserving the environment and bolstering food security. And they are currently being deployed with great success across a broad range of orchard, field and stored crops globally.

Thanks to ongoing research and development, agricultural science can provide farmers with even safer, finely tuned remedies for addressing a major destructive threat. It is all but certain that innovation in agriculture will help ensure the safety and sufficiency of our food supply.

Featured image credit: The NYSIPM Image Gallery