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Putting the bio in biocontrol.

Putting the Bio in Biocontrol

This month's cover story profiles the oldest and largest--in terms of volume--ARS facility for importing insect enemies of bug and weed pests. To find out what else is on the way in this growing field, we talked to Richard Soper, ARS' national program leader for biocontrol, Beltsville, Maryland.

Ag. Res. What makes the ARS biocontrol program special?

Soper. People here and all over the world depend on ARS to supply imported beneficial insects. Last year, just at the Newark lab, 57,000 individual insects and mites of more than 30 species were received--collected in a dozen countries. After reproducing and mass producing many of these species, Newark shipped 180,000 insects to cooperators in 17 states and three foreign countries.

Ag. Res. That's a lot of insect traffic, but what impact is biocontrol having in the United States?

Soper. There have been several huge successes such as control of the alfalfa weevil--a cooperative effort of ARS, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the states and universities. This is saving growers $88 million a year in insecticide costs. Many biocontrol successes aren't well known because they're regional or the pest is suppressed before it gets out of hand.

Ag. Res. How can you persuade farmers that biocontrol works?

Soper. We have to prove scientifically, through rigorous lab and field trials, that biocontrol can work without harming profitability.

Many farmers are already persuaded. In California, strawberry growers are using predatory mites to control lygus bugs. That state's farmers are especially eager for biocontrol because of high concern over food safety, groundwater contamination, and workers' health. Other growers are impressed by successful tests--like the one in several Texas cabbage fields last spring. The test involved ARS, a commercial insectary, and several growers using beneficial wasps and bacteria and very small amounts of insecticide.

Ag. Res. What is ARS doing to get more biocontrol insects produced in the private sector?

Soper. Dozens of insects are available commercially, although sales run only about $2 million to $3 million a year. The potential is vast, but most firms are too small to mount research and development to improve production methods. Most insect rearing is done by public organizations such as APHIS and the states and universities.

One big need is artificial diets to bring down the cost of rearing vigorous insects on a mass scale. Today, lab-rearing often means having to rear a predator's insect or plant prey or a parasite's insect host. That's messy, costly, and time-consuming. We are making progress, such as a joint project with industry on an artificial diet for a promising parasitic wasp.

Ag. Res. Is biocontrol the only way to go?

Soper. Probably not. For a typical crop, the goal should be to make biocontrol the first line of defense and integrate it with other strategies now available or being studied. Those strategies can include pest-resistant crop varieties, cultural practices that reduce pest pressure, and lures--like chemical mimics of an insect pest's sex attractant--to make the pests come to the insecticide instead of covering the field with it.

Ag. Res. How has the easing of East/West tensions affected biocontrol research?

Soper. We're beginning the third year of far more extensive joint explorations with the Soviets and Chinese. And in eastern Europe, we're negotiating a new partnership with Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. They, as well as the United States, will benefit from having new biocontrol agents. Our first targets are natural enemies for pests of potatoes, fruit, and wheat.

Ag. Res. What will U.S. biocontrol look like in 10 to 15 years?

Soper. The commercial industry will be larger, as efforts by ARS and others to help develop new products and processes bear fruit. And we'll know much more about how to make biocontrol work in crop fields.

One thing is for sure--we'll be exploring for enemies of pests we don't yet have in this country. New ones invade about every 3 years.
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Title Annotation:Agricultural Research Service's Richard Soper on biological control of insect and weed pests
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Words:665
Previous Article:Artificial flowers, so lovely, so lethal to moths.
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