September 17, 2009 |
Biopesticides: The Future of Pest Control?
Have you ever marveled over the natural link among things that seem as totally disparate as stale beer, fox urine, fungi, canola oil, parasitic wasps, bacteria, garlic leaves and DDT? Well, if you said “yes” (and love doing lab work), you are all set to pursue a wonderful career in the newly budding field of “biopesticides”.
It’s not exactly a new field. In fact, it’s been nearly 20 years since Mycogen Corp. received the landmark first EPA approval in 1990 to conduct large-scale field tests on genetically engineered insecticides – MVP and M-One Plus – to kill pests (mostly beetles) that attacked tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and ornamental trees. And it’s true that corporate giants like Dow Chemical and Eli Lilly got involved early in the science that – quite literally – branched out in all directions over the ensuing years.
But sadly, all that “branching” turned out to be a major delay – not far removed from getting bogged down mapping strands of DNA, and in fact quite related. For a substance to be classified by the EPA truly as a “biopesticide” its ingredients usually target specifically just one or a very few related “biopests” – for instance, an annoying insect larva and its hungry little arthropod relatives – for one specific plant.
As a result, the EPA has approved over 200 biopesticides now sold in over 800 products – some quite effective in their highly targeted uses, and none causing residual damage to the environment. This EPA link will show you how complex this has become: http://www.epa.gov/oppbppd1/biopesticides/ingredients/index.htm#1A. These “clean” ingredients comprise a mere 1-3% of the total pesticide market, however, and the reason is simple: None of them is a sure-fire, multi-threat, all-crop protector like DDT before it was banned in 1972!
In fairness, today’s mass-market, chemical-based pesticides are not as lethal or environmentally destructive as DDT, to be sure. And, also in their favor, they have been more economically viable for modern agribusiness than the highly targeted biopesticides, which fare far better in “boutique” agri-markets. The overall pesticides market is similar to the one getting far more media attention in recent years – the quest to identify renewable, sustainable biomass sources as alternatives to fossil-based fuel and ingredient manufacturing. In both cases, it’s a matter of economy of scale.
Biopesticides are doing their best to tip that scale in a number of ways. The Biopesticide Industry Alliance (BPIA) has evolved in recent years to give the effort a common voice and today claims about 50 corporate members, many of them exciting new companies (http://www.biopesticideindustryalliance.org/html/members.htm). The biggest “scale tipper” though, will be the breakthroughs these and other biopesticides researchers discover – and the industry is abuzz with an increasing number recently, most of them connected with major research universities.
One of them – a collaborative effort between Evolugate LLC of Gainesville, FL, and researchers for the University of Florida – last month announced it had discovered ways to “program” certain strains of fungi to “evolve” themselves to infect and kill certain harmful insects, like grasshoppers, whose biological resistance can now be destroyed by a “breakthrough in experimental evolution,” according to the research report.
Many of the discoveries are offshoots of genome mapping of certain food plants. An example was at Michigan State University, where plant scientists recently found two new genes and two new enzymes in tomato plants that show tomatoes (and likely other plants) uniquely manufacture their own monoterpenes – odors which attract pollinators, repel pests, and protect the plant from disease. This data will be highly useful in developing specific pesticides.
Other discoveries are coming from unlikely sources. An example is work being done by Maronne Bio Innovations of Davis, CA, which is developing a marine microorganism discovered by DuPont and Biomar, S.A., for use as a rice herbicide. Maronne is doing deeper research with the University of California at San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to locate other marine microbes that can be used to fight pests, weeds and plant diseases.
Industry sources expect the biopesticides industry to grow as much as 10% to 20% a year in the immediate future – with possible huge breakthroughs as lab work is commercialized. The consumer mood for “green” solutions will be helpful, they say.
But if you’re too impatient to wait, don’t worry. Get a taste of the future now! Go buy a sack of Shake Away for your yard or garden. It is EPA-approved granulated fox urine that “keeps beavers, chipmunks, groundhogs, gophers, porcupines, mice, moles, possum, rabbits, rats, shrews, skunks, squirrels, woodchucks, and voles away.”
If your problem is foxes, just be patient and buy yourself a dog.