Can Bug-On-Bug Violence Protect Crops Without Collateral Damage?


by Greg Sewitz June 01, 2015

In Europe, researchers are declaring germ warfare on armyworms by weaponizing the venom of Australian funnel-web spiders.

In Africa, the mealybug’s reign of terror is coming to a screeching halt thanks to some unlikely heroes: parasitoid wasp larvae.

And in Japan, selectively-bred flightless ladybugs are making aphids wish they’d never even sniffed a bushel of mustard spinach.

Biopesticides—the arachnids, bacteria, fungi, insects, and plants that form nature’s answer to synthetic agrochemicals—are the next big step for ensuring food security across the planet. In some sense, they were also the first big step, predating synthetics by at least three centuries, only to fall out of favor in the age of cheap convenience.

Currently, they account for under 10% of the global pesticide market, but sales are climbing at a steady pace, having tripled in less than a decade. Biopesticides, in regaining their status, are definitely having a moment.

Europe is leading the way in adopting them—the EU is alternately renowned and notorious for its aggressive approach to agricultural concerns—purchasing about a third of the world’s supply. The United States isn’t far behind.

Why are increasing numbers of scientists, politicians, and farmers pushing for the widespread return of biopesticides?

Because they work. And they work without harming humans or beneficial organisms.

For instance, those Japanese ladybugs have cut crop devastation by 90% since June of 2014. Unlike DDT or Atrazine, they’re even said to bring good luck!

The wasp larvae in Africa that devour mealybugs? A 95% turnaround for the crucial cassava root, all while returning $150 to growers for every $1 spent on the control agent, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Meanwhile, the peptides in the funnel-web spider’s venom, when combined with a snowdrop plant’s lectin, form a highly targeted—and lethal—“fusion protein” that a 2014 study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows will not adversely affect honeybees, an increasingly critical concern. Sure, they won’t hurt us, either, but as vital pollinators, bees are even more important to Earth’s future than we are.

Bees aren’t the only invertebrates proving their importance. Invertebrates, including crickets, comprise more than a quarter of total biopesticide revenue and are rapidly gaining on plants and microbials in the category of natural defenders.

Commercially available chemical pesticides can be dangerous, exorbitant, and ineffective. A spray-and-pray relic of our industrial past, their days of guarding our fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains are over.

Biopesticides, on the other hand, are far less toxic, take far less time to register with the government (one year as compared to three, according to the Environmental Protection Agency), and require far less in the way of dosage levels…resulting in far less exposure and pollution.

After all, you don’t actually need a backbone to show some.

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Greg Sewitz
Greg Sewitz

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