The Global Scope of Biological Control

Last month the International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC) held a conference in Montpellier, France on "Technology Transfer in Biological Control: From Research to Practice". This topic was chosen to demonstrate the effectiveness of biological control, to document the role of biological control in Integrated Pest Management and sustainable agriculture, and to identify gaps in implementing biological control. Over 500 scientists from 68 counties attended this meeting to share information and ideas from around the world. This article describes a view of biological control as presented by various speakers at this global conference. Other specific topics from the conference will be discussed in subsequent issues.

In a steamy corn field somewhere in the Midwest, a tiny Trichogramma brassicae wasp sits atop a European corn borer egg. She places her ovipositor into it, depositing an egg. Later a wasp larva will hatch and devour the content of the caterpillar's egg. This is where biological control actually occurs on a local level, one parasite or predator at a time, on a single plant in a field, orchard or garden. But far away, in meeting rooms and academic hallways, the destiny of the concept called biological control is being shaped. Public policies being set by distant institutions, research being conducted by foreign scientists on unfamiliar pests, and decisions being made outside our states, region, or even outside the U.S. all may eventually impact the development of biological control as we practice it in our own backyards.

Biological control currently constitutes only a small percentage of plant protection efforts worldwide, and the vast majority of commercial products are biopesticides--with Bacillus thuringiensis accounting for most of that. There is increasing interest in biological control worldwide, with new global, regional, and local programs started for the control of weeds, insects and plant pathogens. This popularity is due, in part, to the efforts and enthusiasm of research scientists who have actively promoted their programs. There are high expectations of biological control as the foundation of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), as a desirable alternative to chemical pesticides, and as a self-perpetuating solution to pest problems. It is expected that the biological control industry will grow at a rate of about 5% per year, since it is much less costly and requires less time to bring a biopesticide to market than for a chemical pesticide. However, there are many hindrances that prevent biological control from being adopted more rapidly. A few of the factors include (1) reliability of biological controls may be affected by environmental variability, (2) commercial biological controls are often not as economical as chemical pesticides, and (3) biological controls often require time to work, but acute pest problems usually need immediate solutions.

Implementation. In the U.S., efforts to implement biological control are usually not aimed at solving individual growers' problems. Although it needs to be done at the local level, funding is normally only for evaluation under "general" conditions. Farmers need to be empowered as experts in the conservation and use of natural enemies, and need to be included as partners in biological control research. Once a particular technology is developed by researchers it must be made available to all farmers. Extension is the primary means of technology transfer and implementation of biological control, although it operates in different ways throughout the world. In developing countries extension may work directly with resource-poor farmers to educate them and guide them to experiment to understand their ecosystem and how biological control with few inputs can be utilized. In contrast, in developed counties, extension is often removed from direct farmer contact, being forced (because of budget constraints) to educate through large meetings, bulletins, and other indirect means. Involvement of farmers in the research process can help increase individual contact and also facilitate adoption of new technologies, as those individuals participating in the experiments will often share information of successful methods with their neighbors.

Public Policy. While most public institutions and governments have a positive opinion of biological control they are, in general, very weak proponents of it. In the developed world, IPM policies are focused on lessening dependence on pesticides, while in the developing world the primary needs are protecting production and reducing the cost of production. The concept of IPM and biological control as its main component is poorly developed in agriculture--chemical pesticides predominate because of their known reliability, effectiveness, and ease of use. Successful pest management with biological control is not as well known. The cooperation of both public and private sectors is necessary to facilitate the promotion of biological control to legislatures and other government bodies throughout the world. Public policy--and monetary support--needs to change in order to make biological control a primary control method in agriculture rather than an "alternative".

In several European countries, the development of biological controls by industry is subsidized and extension is actively promoting and evaluating biological control--generally not the case in the United States. Many factors affect the future of American agribusiness industries using biological control. Public attitudes and perceptions, technological innovations, and public policy will all determine what biological control products are developed and commercialized. In the U.S. public policy trends that will enhance the utilization of biological control include increased costs of registration and use of conventional pesticides, the use of biologicals in the production of organic produce, and an enhanced coordination between public sector research (USDA and universities) and the biological control industry. With such expectations the larger agricultural community, including farmers, consultants, environmentalists, regulators, industry and the public, need to be included in the development of biological control programs in order to succeed at a level far beyond its present use.

The biological control industry is expected to grow rapidly in the near future, but where should we direct our energies for the development of biological controls? Is it on another Bt-like product that will be profitable for companies or...should we develop biological controls even if they are not profitable and may require subsidies? In some people's opinions, many of the biopesticides now in use are applied just as safe pesticides, not as biological controls. It is argued that in order to develop more comprehensive pest management programs based on true biological control we need to change the focus from "pesticide substitutes" to natural enemies as components of a complete ecological system.

Who will determine the direction biological control takes? Farmers, researchers, or bureaucrats in government agencies? IOBC, as a global organization dedicated to biological control, hopes to influence the future of biological control. The following are some of the draft recommendations from this conference that state IOBC's position on biological control.

But does all this rhetoric really ever affect the farmer in the Midwest? That Trichogramma wasp in the Midwestern cornfield is a European species. A company in France developed the technology to apply it to corn fields using conventional equipment with subsidies from the French government. Researchers at Michigan State University evaluated the wasp in the United States, with grants from the USDA to implement biological control as a part of IPM. Decisions made over the years by governments of both countries allowed the development of the technology and utilization and testing. Without a commitment to biological control by their government, farmers cannot benefit from the knowledge obtained by researchers perhaps even those in distant lands to begin the evolution away from a dependence on pesticides in agricultural production systems.

- Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin - Madison

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