Monday, January 21, 2008

California conference features non-proprietary approaches to pest control and organic production

"You know that a revolution in pest management is happening when the pest management specialist of a big Salinas Valley produce company shows a photo of a young, aphid-infested romaine lettuce plant, and says “I don’t worry about this anymore because I know the beneficial insects will catch up and eat them all."

Lots of promising research on biofumigants, beneficial insects, parasite-suppressing soils, habitat management for pest control, cover crops and compost—despite university administrations fixated on attracting the big money for research into proprietary biotechnologies.

By Don Lotter, Ph.D.

Every year the evidence builds to show that biological control and agroecological and organic methods could supply most of what we need to grow all of our food. A conference at the International House at UC Berkeley from July 15-17 covered research being done at the University of California, all over the state, on biological pest management and research related to organic production systems. The three-day conference devoted two days to biological control in general, with a third day devoted to general organic farming systems research.

The subject of cutbacks in research funds was brought up repeatedly as a severe constraint by the researchers at the conference. Those of us who work in this area have a huge obstacle: a mainstream scientific, government, and media community that has been completely swept away by proprietary biotechnological approaches to food production. Nearly all of the agroecological techniques we use, many described below, are non-proprietary, that is, they can’t be patented. Therefore the private sector, with its enormous investment capital, is not interested in funding us. The proprietary biotechnology sector gets huge amounts of this money, easily in the tens of billions. The problem is that they are also getting our much smaller pool of public, federal funding, taking somewhere in the ballpark of 85% of agricultural research funds. We, the agroecologists and biological control specialists, with only farmers and consumers as our backers and beneficiaries, literally get thrown the crumbs.

There is a building awareness that public moneys, federal tax dollars, should be devoted to research on non-proprietary approaches to food production and not to proprietary technologies that already have huge sources of funding in the private sector. After all, the agroecological approach will likely provide most of the solutions to food production constraints in the future.

Below I review the conference presentations, many of which are good examples of what I mean when I talk about non-proprietary approaches to agriculture. All in all, the conference was very informative, showing an impressive amount of organic-relevant research coming out of the UC system. But despite the results from the researchers discussed below, most are looking at cutbacks in their funding.

Biofumigation, part 1. Krishna Subbarao of the UC Davis reviewed his research on using cruciferous cover crops to reduce diseases, known by some as biofumigation. Broccoli is particularly effective on the Verticillium wilt fungus, V. dahliae. His early observation is that the numbers of certain actinomycetes and bacteria increase by 100- to 1000-fold. Each cruciferous crop has its own type of glucosinolate, and broccoli’s is effective on V. dahliae.

Biofumigation, part 2. Oleg Daugovish of UC Cooperative Extension, Ventura County, described how “biofumigation” with yellow and oriental mustard cover crops reduced citrus nematode and Phytophtora root rot by 90%. Biofumigation may not be the correct term, as Daugovish noted that beneficial fungi such as Trichoderma have been found at much higher levels in the mustard treated soils. This does not occur when the soil is fumigated with chemicals. Mustard cover crops are now commonplace in the Salinas Valley.

Mustard’s effects on weed seed germination can be significant in the lab, but field trials have not shown significant results. The mustards had no effect on Verticillium, contrary to the significant effect that its cousin broccoli (all are Brassicaceous) had on this pathogen.

Tripping up the thrips threat. Mark Hoddle of UC Riverside has reduced the emergence of thrips by half from soil under avocado trees by mulching with compost. As with many orchard pests, thrips pupates in the orchard soil. Predatory mites, Collembolans, beetles, and entomopathogenic fungi and nematodes may be responsible for the reduction in thrips. He saw higher levels of the entomopathogenic fungus Beauvaria bassiana in the mulched soils. [Entomopathogenic is a big word that simply means that these fungi and nematodes are a threat to insects.]

Soils that suppress plant parasites. J. Ole Becker of UC Riverside discussed the development of soils that are suppressive to plant parasitic nematodes. This type of suppressiveness, such as of cyst nematode in sugar beet, develops only after five or six years of growing the same crop in the same soil. The suppressiveness is transferable with small amounts of soil from one soil to another, and appears to be microbiological.

Read the rest of the story at the Rodale New Farm website.

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