The History of Biocontrol and IPM

Other folks, such as entomologist Dr. Hans Herron of Switzerland, made early inroads into this science through perseverance and hard work by making things happen in such a grand scale that, globally, the future of biocontrol and IPM could no longer be ignored or denied. Here is his story:

The Africa Project

In 1970, a South American pest species, the cassava mealybug, Phenacoccus manihoti, found its way into Africa. (This was a time, thanks to the early work of the Wright Brothers, in which global transportation was getting into full swing.) In Africa, the cassava plant, with its prized roots, was a staple of its, then, 200 million people, and necessary to their survival. The pest, having no natural enemies in Africa, went unchecked, spreading some one-hundred miles per year. The problem was becoming quite significant. By 1973, farmers in Zaire were reporting crop losses of 80-90%. For them it was a national disaster. All sorts of chemicals were tried, but none seemed to have any effect. One reason for this was the pest’s natural wax-like coating offering protection. Another reason was the mealybug’s toxin-containing saliva would cause the leaves to curl around its body. With such physical protection, the chemicals couldn’t reach the pest within. The answer obviously had to lie somewhere else. Meanwhile, scientists were scratching their collective heads, unsure how to proceed. The pest was still spreading, leaving a wake of destruction wherever it went. By 1976, the cassava mealybug had spread to Senegal and Gambia. In 1977, enough was enough and Zaire let out an international cry for help. Desperation was taking its toll. Their cry was answered by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) headquartered in Ibadan, Nigeria. Herron, given the task of spearheading the efforts to help Zaire, decided a biological solution was the best and last hope. Herron and his task force had to scour the world in an effort to locate the cassava mealybug’s native home and natural enemies.

In 1979, Herron and his group narrowed their search to a handful of South American countries. With the help of Dr. Anthony Bellotti, an entomologist at Columbia’s International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CICTA) who was also searching for the answer, they were able to narrow the search even more. The mealybug, as it turns out, was indigenous to Paraguay. The effort was rapidly beginning to reach a head as the team descended upon the jungles of this South American country. In no time several natural enemies were isolated and brought to the International Institute for Biological Control (IIBC) in Great Britain for quarantine and testing. Before randomly mass-rearing and releasing any organisms in Africa, the scientists wanted to be sure that the problem was not going be compounded by being hasty with the biocontrols. They wanted a biocontrol agent which could survive the dryer, harsher African climate, and would be as host specific as possible (they didn’t want their cure to attack other non-pest organisms). Compatibility was key. They narrowed the field to two candidates-one was chosen: a tiny one-millimeter endoparasitic wasp, Epidinocarsis lopezi.

Time was running out. It was now 1984. The cassava mealybug had spread to thirty African countries, causing some $2 billion in crop losses annually-and cassava roots are cheap. However, even though Herron and his team had mini-wasps in hand, there were still hurdles to jump. First they had to get the final approval, second they had to mass-rear the wasps, and third they had to find some sort of effective delivery system for getting them into the crop on a national scale. And, of course, copious amounts of money were going to be needed.

The IITA called Dr. Edward Glass, executive director to the Consortium for International Crop Protection (CICP) of Cornell University, located in Geneva, New York, to consult with entomologists from around the world before approval would be granted. Glass was known in some circles as a “squirt gun entomologist” stemming from his work with chemical pesticides. To Herron it looked like an uphill battle. Glass, however, stayed neutral as the world’s entomologists went back and forth in debate. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was being pessimistic, while other factions were optimistic. After two weeks of hearing discussion, Glass decided the project was worth trying. Herron got a green light.

Canadian and European donors came through with the $20 million necessary to implement the program and run it for twelve years. An insectary was built and rearing began. Meanwhile, Austrian engineers developed an aircraft delivery system capable of releasing 40,000 mini-wasps per sortie at a rate of one-hundred per second. It was a challenge. The plane would be flying 200 miles-per-hour and they didn’t want to rip the wings off of the tiny wasps.

Herron and his IITA cohorts saw to it that the wasps were successfully released in several African countries. While visiting the release site countries they felt it would be important to help implement other biocontrol programs for other crop pests, as well, such as locusts, specifically focusing on the pests of corn, bananas and cowpea crops. They didn’t, after all, want the chemicals normally used to control those pests to interfere with the efforts of the wasps they fought so hard to use.

By 1987, the project was a huge success. The cassava mealybug was brought under control-well under the economic threshold for the crop. Moreover, the project came in well below the $20 million budget planned, radically disproving the nay-saying economists who predicted the cost/benefit ratio would be 149:1 in twenty years’ time. The project proved to be sustainable, too. Not only from the perspective of the self-sustained biocontrol agents working against the mealybugs, but in a much broader view: over 600 people in thirty-five countries were successfully trained in research, management and implementation of biocontrol agronomics relative to the many programs in effect at the time. As the adage goes: You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach a man to fish and feed him for life.

In retrospect, Herron complained that “biological control has been in the closet of science since science developed DDT. People doing biocontrol [at that time] had no vision and a small-scale view of the world.” He commented that the African project was a “model case.” Glass agreed by stating the “war against the cassava mealybug was essentially over, though Herron is standing by, with wasps in hand, just in case it (cassava mealybug) spreads to Madagascar, the Seychelles, India and Thailand. The African biological control project has been the largest and most successful ever undertaken-even to this day. This project is an excellent example of providing appropriate, significant assistance to small farmers. Worldwide, pests are estimated to cause thirty to fifty percent of crop losses. Pests account for more fluctuations in agricultural crop production than any other factor except weather.”

That was then

Told on this page are just a few names, extracted from the thousands of unmentioned individuals and groups in our history. Also aforementioned are a few examples — some successful, others not. My point is, obviously, what is written is just a sliver from the overall pie. Hopefully, though, the picture of where biocontrol and IPM are in this world and in this time are seen just a little more clearly. Progress has been made, and continues so, and these pest control techniques, the Green Methods as I like to call them, are now on their way to fueling a booming industry. An industry which puts the planet ahead a notch or two — instead of taking something away as is often the case.

A brief history? Yes, but only if I stop writing about it here and now. As this is written, more growers use chemicals than those who don’t. But the tide is turning. Between governmental pressures, the growers’ dawning realization that a higher price may ultimately have to be paid, public demand, a slow-moving but powerful monster, and plain old common sense, chemicals, will, like their biological counterparts, have to complete a sort of metamorphosis — or they’ll disappear altogether.

In the preface to this web site I made some comments which might negatively reflect the work of some research scientists. I won’t deny it either. Research scientists, though, are people. And some people make mistakes. Others, however, provide incredible insights to the world we live in. Some discount anecdotal evidence while others embrace it. Some try to replicate nature and make determinations from their studies; others realize nature is such a complicated thing, that replication is nearly impossible and therefore use their studies as a starting point instead of as a conclusion. My comments regarding researchers may sound derogatory, but I want the air to be clear, most research scientists are a valuable asset to the world we live in. Without them, our world would be in a state a greater disrepair than it is currently. So kudos to them all: the good, the bad, the ugly. Without the well-rounded opinions of varying scientists, no one would be around to keep things in check. But this works only if there is a second sight, a questioning, and a little bit of opposition.

Speaking of keeping things in check: Biotechnology, which is a different field from biocontrol/IPM, might be one of these sciences which needs constant peer supervision. I, personally, am impressed with biotechnology. At the same exact time, though, I am appalled and a little bit frightened. One of biotechnology’s main goals, it seems, is to feed the world with existing agricultural areas. It wants to pull this off without increasing the impact on the earth. The visions here are grand to say the least. Feed third-world countries, reduce pesticide usage and its resultant pollution, make foods more nutritious. Some of the work, so far, is really terrific and very impressive. Some is scary: genetically altering plants by adding the DNA of pesticidal bacteria for example. And some seems as if it has a blatant marketing angle by making the users of said products dependent on the purveyors of some of these genetically engineered goods. It’s like that old expression I mentioned before: Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for life. The marketing twist seems to be that the “fishing teachers” are setting up an infrastructure of tackle shops, bait stores, and other related streams of revenue. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. If biotechnology wasn’t marketable in some way, shape or form, they probably wouldn’t bother developing it. There’s one thing we can all count on: people will save the world if a buck can be made, if not, most folks can’t and won’t be bothered.

The problems with the world lie mostly with people. For one thing, too many of us inhabit our small and fragile planet. And unlike other social creatures, most people tend to live and work with our own best interests in mind, instead of the interests of the colony. We have individual goals, dreams and ambitions. On the other hand, ants and wasps, for example, have one thing in mind: to help the colony succeed. Unlike those critters, though, some of us have taken it upon ourselves to peer outside the colony and see the earth as one entity — a whole living and breathing creature. We are its mind and soul. Maybe we’re just feeling guilty. Maybe we had better do it or else the body could die. Here I go, again, on a tangent. Anyway, this is a brief history. And as tomorrow becomes today, today becomes history. So let’s move ahead.

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