The use of viruses and other biological means to attack agricultural pests and diseases is gaining in popularity with farmers and possibly consumers as well.
Last year three major agricultural chemical companies expanded their product lines by purchasing businesses that manufacture and distribute biopesticides for use against pests and diseases that threaten agricultural crops. The use of chemical sprays, so dramatized and dreaded in the consumer community, might be on the decline.
For farmers, some of whom have known and used biological compounds and methods to control pests and diseases for years, the trend probably means access to a wider range of controls and possibly lower costs for the materials to do the job.
Who knows how consumers will react, or how their advocates will spin it? For more sanity and better acceptance of food products, farmers hope food buyers will see the trend as they see it themselves, safer, less toxic and less persistent compounds applied with positive and specific results.
A virus called Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt for short, appeared on the pest control scene 40 or more years ago. Applied in a powdery form by the same agricultural sprayers that belched out chemical pest controls, it simply made specific pests sick to death. Means to manufacture it were limited at the time, and its toxic effect was restricted to certain pests, not all of those that attack food crops by any means.
But persistent research and experimentation by committed biologists and other specialists has resulted in the discovery of dozens of other biological compounds that perform their lethal magic on a wide range of pesky critters and diseases that attack fruits, vegetables and other food products in the field and on their way to dinner tables.
The benefits and exciting potential of a wide range of biopesticides are expressed through a trade association in Madison, Wis., the Biopesticides Industry Alliance. Its executive director, Bill Stoneman, spoke with one of California Agriculture’s leading journalists recently to update the prospects for this exciting additional weapon against destructive pests and disease.
“These materials have advantages and are typically tolerant exempt,” Stoneman said. “Many of (them) have a zero to four hour re-entry interval, typically a zero pre-harvest interval and excellent worker safety,” he said. That is a tremendous benefit for farmers and workers who are required to wait days in some cases to enter a field after certain chemicals have been sprayed.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines biopesticides as products that contain natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals. That includes canola oil and baking soda, both of which have pesticidal applications.
But most people in the pest and disease control business turn to Bts as familiar examples of biopesticides. They have been consistently effective against certain pests when properly applied, and humans have not been negatively affected in all the time they have been in use.
One California supplier of biopesticides explained that the materials have been used mostly in high-value crops, often vegetables, but they are being more widely used in large acreage crops in the state and in the Midwest.
Coupling the long-term experience of the traditional agricultural chemical companies as they include plant extracts, microbial fermentation products, live micro-organisms with protein molecules brings a new era to pest and disease control in agriculture. Botta bing!
For those of us who write about such things it might mean the age of a whole new vocabulary, which is sure to be trying, but hopefully not as distressing as it is to a whole host of critters that mean nothing but harm to wholesome food products.