While human health benefits tend to be indirect, the benefits of using biologicals in agricultural application tend to be more direct. Topping the list are benefits to crop quality and yield, which help growers deliver healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables to consumers around the world. Through their highly targeted modes of action, biocontrols also allow growers to maintain beneficial insect (natural predator) populations in their fields, reducing the grower dependence on conventional chemical pesticides.
With precise application timing, some biologicals can give growers flexibility. This is because most biocontrols have short restricted entry and pre-harvest intervals, and some others can even be used to manage the ripening process. Biologicals are also known as integral components of Integrated Pest Management programs, which combine cultural and chemical practices, such as Resistance Management, to maximize production efficiency and promote environmental safety.
- Crop Quality & Yield
- Labor and Harvest Flexibility
- IPM Compatibility
- Resistance Management
- Environmental Safety
- Residue Management
Crop Quality & Yield
Agricultural and horticultural growers face significant challenges to maximize the returns on their investments. While part of this equation involves the efficient possible use of inputs, a grower’s income is ultimately dependent upon crop quality and yield.
Biopesticides are often included as “standard” inputs in production programs as a means to significantly improve quality and yield of crops under challenging conditions. Such products, which include a variety of both microbial and biochemical biocontrols, may be used to protect the crop from pathogens, insect pests, and/or weeds that can divert or restrict the crop’s access to valuable resources such as water, sunlight, or nutrients. Thus, biocontrols help to promote crop health thereby increasing its salability. In organic production systems, biocontrols represent some of the most significant crop protection tools that a grower has to produce a quality crop.
Plant growth regulators (PGRs) enable growers to improve crop quality and yield in a different way. Rather than mitigating pest damage to the crop, PGRs evoke physiological benefits such as increased fruit size or enhanced color. As color and fruit size are often key determinates in the price a grower receives for a crop, application of biocontrols have the ability to increase overall yield resulting in higher net farm income.
Biopesticides deliver significant value to each link in the production chain, but that value begins with benefits derived by the grower. One key element of that value proposition is that biocontrols target specific pests without disrupting the beneficial components of an agroecosystem. For instance, most bioinsecticides do not harm beneficial insect populations and bioherbicides tend to be specific for a single weed species. Still, some biocontrols, particularly those used for disease management, tend to be more broad spectrum, making them useful for managing the multiple pathogens that challenge the growth of most crops.
While many insect species have a negative impact on crop production, beneficial insects have the opposite effect. These benefits may derive from the insect’s role as a pollinator or through its place as a natural predator to the insects that cause damage. Several species of beetles, flies, and wasps fall into this category. By helping to maintain populations of natural enemies to damaging insects, biocontrols play an important role in integrated pest management programs. Keeping beneficial insects healthy helps reduce pest problems to acceptable levels and helps growers manage the judicious use of pest control products.
Labor and Harvest Flexibility
Agricultural managers list labor availability and the coordinated timing of harvest as critical operational variables related to profitability. Many times these factors collide due to uncooperative seasonal weather. Biopesticides provide important management tools that provide increased control and flexibility at harvest.
Qualities shared by most biocontrols provide growers with more options to maximize their labor force and optimize harvest times. For starters, most biocontrols have short worker Restricted Entry Intervals (REIs), allowing workers to safely return to the fields with minimum delay after treatment. This provides for more timely diagnosis and response to other crop conditions and subsequent crop input applications. Biopesticides with short Pre-Harvest Intervals (PHIs) allow harvest and shipping schedules to be better maintained after required pesticide applications.
Plant Growth Regulators (PGRs), can provide harvest flexibility in a different way. Some PGRs inhibit the biosynthesis of ethylene in plants. As a natural plant hormone involved in fruit maturation, ripening and abscission, ethylene is a key contributor in a crop’s “readiness” for harvest. So, ethylene inhibitors can help growers with harvest scheduling as well as the maintenance of fruit quality during storage.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. The IPM approach combines cultural, biological and chemical means to control pests, all the while minimizing economic, public health and environmental risks. This represents good stewardship.
Biopesticides are considered among the best low-risk and most highly effective tools for achieving crop protection in IPM systems. However, real world challenges often dictate that IPM systems combine the use of all control methods, including conventional chemistries, to optimize productivity and sustainability.
Research, field trials, and performance history prove that the most effective IPM programs typically consist of biocontrols used in combination or rotation with traditional chemistries. This optimizes the grower’s ability to 1) successfully manage pests with a variety of effective control mechanisms; 2) manage pesticide resistance through rotation of these effective chemistries; and 3) minimize the environmental impact of the production system.
Pest resistance to conventional chemical pesticides is a significant grower and industry concern. Scientific research has repeatedly demonstrated that continuous use of the same class of pesticides (especially those reliant on a single mode of action) will result in the emergence of a pest population resistant to those products.
Populations of insect pests, plant pathogens and weeds all have the ability to develop resistance quickly, even to different types of functionally similar chemistries. This phenomenon is called cross-resistance and is caused by multi-chemistry detoxification mechanisms present in many pest populations. As new classes of low-impact chemistries continue to be introduced to commercial growers and educators, the challenge of resistance management must be met proactively through thoughtful use of diverse product choices for season-long pest control programs.
Biopesticides have long been used in combination with synthetic chemistries to provide the basis for excellent control programs that effectively manage resistance. Biopesticides typically have modes of action that are unique from synthetic pesticides and do not rely on a single target site for efficacy. The naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), for example, has multiple active components including a range of different toxins and germinating spores. Properly used, biocontrols have the potential to extend the effective field life of all products by curtailing the development of resistant pest populations.
Growers cannot overstate the importance being good stewards of the land. More and more, environmental stewardship and Best Management Practices are at the forefront of commercial farming operations. Indeed, the art of being a top grower depends on maximizing return on investment while at the same time being a responsible steward of the land, land that future generations will depend on for their livelihood.
Biopesticides provide growers with valuable tools on both fronts by delivering solutions that are highly effective in managing pests, without creating negative impacts on the environment. Overall, biocontrols have very limited toxicity to birds, fish, bees and other wildlife. They help to maintain beneficial insect populations, break down quickly in the environment, and may serve to reduce conventional pesticide applications through their effective use in resistance management programs.
Today’s consumers are increasingly sensitive to chemical use in food production. And many consider produce grown with less chemical inputs as healthier, safer, and friendlier for the environment.
Growers, farm advisors and government regulators are addressing these perceptions by working to reduce total chemical residue levels on harvested crops. Listening to the demands of their customers, several large European multinational grocery stores and food processing companies are already requiring lower pesticide residues than the current government-mandated Maximum Residue Limits.
Most biocontrols are exempt from residue limits on fresh and processed foods around the world. Whether used alone or in combination with reduced rates of traditional chemistries, biocontrols use reduces consumer exposure to regulated chemical residues. For growers, food retailers, and consumers alike, this means that biocontrols can be used to reduce the number of chemical pesticides used, the number of applications required to manage pests, and/or lower the application rates without sacrificing food safety or quality. These benefits are essential for a progressive crop management program servicing the needs of today’s marketplace.