Biopesticides — part of the tool chest

If you told someone who doesn’t work in agriculture that a mustard seed could be classified as a pesticide, they’d probably give you a funny look. Or how about balsam fir oil?

These are examples of biopesticides. And according to some growers, that label is a problem.

From left: Mike Riffle, Valent USA; Jamie Williams, Lipman; Gary Vallad, GCREC, UF/IFAS; Chuck Obern C&B Farms.

Two Florida growers, a researcher from a chemical company and an academic researcher served on a panel at the 2016 Florida Ag Expo held earlier this month at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. They were charged with talking about “maximizing use and effectiveness of biopesticides.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biopesticides are certain types of pesticides derived from such natural materials as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals. For example, canola oil and baking soda are considered biopesticides.  As of April, there were 299 registered biopesticide active ingredients and 1,401 active biopesticide product registrations.

Biopesticides have some advantages over conventional pesticides. They are usually inherently less toxic. They generally affect only the target pest and closely related organisms.  They’re often effective in very small quantities and, as a part of an integrated pest management system (using insect or other predators, for example), can be effective at decreasing conventional pesticide usage while encouraging high crop yields.

But there are some downsides to biopesticides. The growers on the panel and some in the audience pointed out a few.

“It’s all about frequency,” said Chuck Obern, owner of C&B Farms, which grows vegetables and other crops in South Florida. “The cost must support the frequency that results in efficacy.” He described an example where he had to apply a biopesticide much more frequently than a conventional product in order to get similar results.

Jamie Williams of Lipman, a large tomato grower, said biopesticides are useful as part of a more extensive plan. “We don’t pass up a tool. They’re part of a tool chest,” he said.

“There is a place for biopesticides. They do work, but you have to figure out if you can afford to use them,” Obern said. “For organic crops, that’s all we can use.”

Gary Vallad, a University of Florida researcher on the panel, is on the case. “We’ve been conducting research trials the same as we would with any conventional product,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that affect evaluation. And it’s helpful to be able to work with growers in large plots. More research is needed to address variables in the field.”

Is the cost and the effort worth the trouble? One answer came from a grower in the audience. Carl Grooms, owner of strawberry operation Fancy Farms, isn’t so sure of that. “Pesticide is a bad word. Even if it’s got ‘bio’ in front of it. People only hear ‘pesticide.’ We need a different term,” he said. “I wonder if we’ll still be using the word in 30 years.”

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