By Ioulia Fenton
According to a recent report by the Pesticide Action Network, the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture is costly to human health and biodiversity: the effects of excessive exposure range from skin and eye irritation to disruptions of the immune system and death by poisoning. It is also increasingly expensive for farmers who have to keep up with pests’ natural ability to adapt to chemical formulas and resilience. But many farmers are abandoning chemicals for more natural methods that are not only chemical-free, but are also fascinating and fun.
Today, Nourishing the Planet presents five natural pest management innovations from around the world that use novel insect control techniques:
1. Ducks in South Africa. No one likes to chew on a grape the way a snail does. Vineyards are prone to snail infestations that can threaten entire harvests, leading ordinary wine producers to rely on pesticides for protection. South Africa’s Avondale Wines, however, uses an entirely different method to control the slimy pest.
Every season, one hundred adult ducks wobble their way through 247 acres of Avondale vineyard rows, happily eating snails. “It is a natural alternative to your usual toxic, chemical-based snail control…and it works much more effectively,” says Avondale’s Johnathan (Jonty) Grieve in a YouTube video. The ducks are not only more efficient at getting rid of snails, but also do not leave behind the chemical residues unavoidable with traditional methods. Moreover, the duck’s precision—they only eat the snails, leaving the vineyard otherwise intact—helps preserve the harvest and maintain the natural harmony of the plants, animals, and organisms in the immediate environment.
2. Arachnophilia in China’s cotton growing by the Yangtse. Protecting the health of farmers while helping them protect their crops is the mission of Dr. Zhao Jingzhao, President of China’s Hubei University. Building on ancient Chinese biological pest control methods and through nationwide research, he set out to find natural predators to the boll weevil, the major insect plaguing cotton farms near Wuhan on the Yangtze River, 1,000 kilometers south of Beijing. Dr. Zao found that the 600 natural enemies of the boll weevil that his team identified included over 100 varieties of spiders. Upon the discovery, the team immediately began to show farmers of the Hubei Province how to attract the eight-legged arachnids to their cotton fields—digging small holes in fields before planting the rice and providing plenty of grass cover for the spiders to hide in. As a result, the farmers have been able to cut down on chemical use by 80 percent, while their yields have increased. Read more in this article by Horizon Solutions.
3. The Bug Wars in Thailand. According to the Thai Tapioca Starch Association, cassava—a woody, shrubby plant, widely cultivated in the Tropics for its starchy root—is worth around US$1.5 billion a year to Thailand’s farmers. But people are not the only ones who find this rich vegetable delicious—it is also eagerly devoured by an unruly pest called the mealy bug. According to the New York Times, in 2010, the infestation was so serious that it become nothing short of a plague. To fight this onslaught, the Thai government released a quarter of a million tiny parasitic wasps—the mealy bug’s natural predator—in the cassava fields of the Nakhon Ratchasima district to successfully control the problem.
4. Spicing things up in Guatemala. To save money and help heal the land, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Guatemala is helping farmers discover ways to make pest-control preparations using free or cheap locally available ingredients. In workshops that engage community leaders, local representatives of FAO hold practical demonstrations that combine water with large amounts of crushed garlic and chiltepes—pinky-fingernail-sized highly spicy local chili peppers. The end result is an all-natural pesticide that can be sprayed regularly on plants to deter unwanted insects, birds, and animal gorgers naturally with its pungent odor and painful spice.
5. Natural methods to minimize rice storage losses in India. It is not just on the farm that insects and other creatures can claim a share of a harvest. Storage of perishable goods such as rice, produced in India and other countries, is also prone to pest and fungi attacks. According to the German Transport Information Service, flour, drugstore, and spider beetles, as well as moths, rats, and mice, are all attracted to rice. The damage they cause leads to increased grain respiration—a chemical reaction that releases water vapor and warmth in the process of breaking down glucose into energy for the plant’s cells—which increases moisture and heat levels that facilitate bacteria growth and mold. Large losses of stored crops can occur if these are left unchecked. Meanwhile, fungicide and pesticide-treated grain—rice is often fumigated with an insecticide called methyl bromide—leaves chemical residues that could harm human health.
A global consortium of rice farmers and scientists recently found a mixed technology solution to this problem. The team came together under the EURIKA project, a multi-governmental European research initiative. According to the project, their novel combination of insect traps, better refrigeration, and use of natural gases to slow down pest development has been so successful—it saw a 95 percent decline in rice lost to pests during storage and transportation—that four companies are already using it to great effect. The method is also undergoing research into the solution’s applicability to reduce storage and transportation losses of many other grains besides rice.
Of course, using a single method to control one pest is not a panacea. In fact, even the most seemingly natural alternatives come with their own tradeoffs and possible negative side effects. According to National Geographic, for example, the introduction of the cane toad to control pests in Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries led to tragic consequences for many native species. Most of the methods above, however, are compatible with the wider principles of Integrated Pest Management that views the farm as an integrated, whole ecosystem and therefore uses natural methods of pest control that do not upset its overall balance.
Do you know of other fascinating, natural techniques that farmers use to control pests? Please share them in the comments below.
Ioulia Fenton is a Food and Agriculture Research Intern with Nourishing the Planet.
Nourishing the Planet has written extensively on integrated and reduced input pest management and other techniques. Check out these articles: What works: Reduced Input Pest Management; Innovation of the Week: Handling Pests with Care Instead of Chemicals; Five Ways to Get Rid of Pests Without Using Chemicals ; For Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead, and Tiny Bugs to Solve Big Pest Problem.
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