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Agricultural Biotechnology: History, Science, and Society (October 2013): Biotechnology and Integrated Pest Management

By Brian R. Shmaefsky

Biotechnology and Integrated Pest Management

Today scientists are exploring biotechnology methods for solving almost every agricultural problem that cannot be completely managed with traditional practices.  One area that has not fully achieved fruition is integrated pest management (IPM).  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, IPM is “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.  IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment.” [1]

Two fundamental principles of IPM entail reducing the use of agricultural chemicals and decreasing the amount of disturbed land in order to maintain large supplies of high-quality, safe foods (crops).  Mary Flint’s IPM in Practice: Principles and Methods of Integrated Pest Management is a good place for students to obtain information on the basics.  The book explains the rationale for using IPM and the history of IPM developments.  Crop IPM also requires a thorough understanding of plant pests.  Much of the loss of crop yields is due to consumption by insects and the plant diseases that insects spread.  Two helpful resources on this topic are Arthropod-Plant Interactions: Novel Insights and Approaches for IPM, edited by Guy Smagghe and Isabel Diaz, and Advances in Microbial Control of Insect Pests, edited by Rajeey Upadhyay.  The latter book shows how entomopathogenic, or insect-harming, microbes such as bacteria, fungi, nematode worms, and viruses are used to control insects that damage crops.  Lastly, Chemical Ecology of Insect Parasitoids, edited by Eric Wajnberg and Stefano Colazza, describes how parasitic larvae from other arthropods are used to reduce pest-insect populations.

As mentioned above, IPM strives to eliminate the need to use hazardous chemicals to reduce pests that affect the productivity of agricultural animals and plants.  Biocontrol Potential and Its Exploitation in Sustainable Agriculture, Volume 2: Insect Pests, edited by Rajeey Upadhyay, K. Mukerji, and B. Chamola, explains sustainable IPM practices that cause minimal long-term harm to the environment.  Some techniques use naturally occurring chemicals called pheromones that attract pest insects to traps, thus keeping pests away from animals and crops.  Behavior-Modifying Chemicals for Insect Management, edited by Richard Ridgway, Robert Silverstein, and May Inscoe, provides good descriptions of these techniques and also describes environmentally safe biological control using pest insect pathogens.  In addition, readers may wish to consult Microbial Biopesticides, edited by Opender Koul and G. Dhaliwal.  This book describes sustainable strategies that are limited to the use of safe pesticide agents produced by microorganisms.  Heikki Hokkanen and James Lynch describe the consequences of biological control and other sustainable methods in Biological Control: Benefits and Risks.  Unfortunately, practices that are shown to be sustainable in short-term studies do not always work generations later due to changing economic factors and evolutionary mechanisms that confound biological control efforts.

The newest area of IPM integrates aspects of agricultural biotechnology into sustainable agricultural pest control.  Biotechnology and Integrated Pest Management, edited by Gabrielle Persley, and Biotechnological Applications for Integrated Pest Management, edited by S. Ignacimuthu, A. Sen, and S. Janarthanan, show how genetically modified plants can be used to control diseases of agricultural animals and plants.  The most common biotechnology IPM strategy uses plants that are genetically modified to resist disease.  Scientists program these plants to produce chemicals that attack insects and pathogens.  They design other plants to resist herbicides used in low enough concentrations to reduce weed populations without harming the crops.  In animal agriculture, researchers genetically modify feed plants with vaccines and medicinal compounds that help the animals fight disease.

[1] Environmental Protection Agency: Pesticides: Topical & Chemical Fact Sheets - Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles, accessed May 24, 2013,