Using Integrated Pest Management to Reduce Pesticides and Increase Food Safety
Written by Sara Hendery, Communications Coordinator of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management
In 2017, thousands of beetles and weevils moved into Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Like most living things, they were hungry, but their appetites desired a specific earthly delicacy: weeds.
Zygogramma, the leaf-feeding beetle, and Listronotus, the stem-boring weevil, were released in Ethiopia by Virginia State University, collaborators of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management, funded by USAID and housed at Virginia Tech. Zygogramma and Listronotus combat Parthenium, an invasive weed that threatens food security and biodiversity, causes respiratory issues and rashes on human skin, and taints meat and dairy products when consumed by animals. Biological control and other holistic agricultural methods are specialities of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovation Lab. Its team of scientists and collaborators generate IPM technologies to fight, reduce and manage crop-destroying pests in developing countries while reducing the use of pesticides.
The application of pesticides is a major threat to human health. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50,000 tons of obsolete pesticides blanket the already at-risk land. Pesticides can taint food, water, soil and air, causing headaches, drowsiness, fertility issues and life-threatening illness. Especially vulnerable populations are children, pregnant women and farmers themselves; hundreds of thousands of known deaths occur each year due to pesticide poisoning. Pesticides often increase crop yields, but an abundance of crops is anachronistic when the cost is human life.
In a small community in Bangladesh, farmers used to rely on pesticides to manage insects and agricultural diseases destroying crops, but community members began to develop symptoms from the excessive pesticide use, and, more than that, children were doing the spraying. The IPM Innovation Lab implemented a grafting program in the community that generated eggplant grafted varieties resistant to bacterial wilt. Eggplant yields increased dramatically and purchases of chemical pesticides dropped, which meant safer and healthier produce for families.
This story is one of many. The IPM Innovation Lab taps into a collection of inventive technologies in both its current phase of projects in East Africa and Asia, and since its inception in 1993, to enhance the livelihoods and standards of living for smallholder farmers and people across the globe:
In Vietnam, dragon fruit is covered in biodegradable plastic bags to protect the plants from fungal disease.
In Niger, the release of parasitoids eliminates the pearl millet headminer.
The spread of coconut dust inside seedling trays grows healthy plants in India.
Parasitic wasps destroy the papaya mealybug from India to Florida.
Trichoderma, a naturally occurring fungus in soil, fights against fungal diseases in India, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Cuelure bait traps save cucurbits from fruit flies in Bangladesh.
Eggplant fruit and shootborer baits protect eggplants from insect damage in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.
Pesticides do not necessarily eliminate pest invasion; they eliminate even the “good” insects on plants. Insects often develop resistance to popular chemicals when applied frequently, so not only is chemical spraying sometimes unnecessary, it is excessive.
Tuta absoluta, for example, is a tomato leafminer destroying tomato crops across the globe. In Spain, in the first year of the pest’s introduction, pesticides were applied 15 times per season, but the pest is resistant to pesticides and is so small (about the size of a stray pencil mark) that it often burrows inside the plant rather than around it. The IPM Innovation Lab and its collaborators generated one-of-a-kind modeling to track the movement of the species and introduced pheromone traps and neem-based bio-pesticides to help manage its spread, further ensuring the implementation of a series of technologies, rather than just relying on one, to reduce crop damage. The age-old saying “two heads are better than one” is accurate — just ask Zygogramma and Listronotus.
In developing countries, it is difficult to regulate the amount of chemical pesticides that make it onto crops, thus increasing the risk that chemicals will have a dramatic effect on the safety of food and the potential for exposure to foreign markets. One of the reasons pesticide over-application is common in developing countries is due to misinformation. In Cambodian rice production, pesticides are often misused because labels are printed in a foreign language; it is common that farmers mix two to five pesticides, resulting in pesticide poisoning. The IPM Innovation Lab’s project in Cambodia reduces the number of pesticides in rice production by introducing host-plant resistance and biological control.
Also, a fundamental practice of the IPM Innovation Lab is conducting trainings and symposia for farmers and IPM collaborators across the world to educate on the use and implementation of IPM technologies, further reducing the risk of possible harm to crops and human life. Additionally, IPM Innovation Lab partners with agriculture input suppliers and markets in project communities to ensure that bio-pesticides and IPM materials such as traps are readily available and that the purchase of pesticides are not the only option.
Ultimately, when you spray, you pay. The IPM Innovation Lab prioritizes both human and plant health by reducing the use of pesticides, and with the human population growing by the thousands every day, it is crucial that food is not only abundant but also safe and healthy to eat.