ForumAgricultural Pests: No Shortage in the Forecast
The cover story in this issue shows a few snapshots from the 33-year
research album of Interregional Research Project No. 4, or IR-4. The name tells
nothing about IR-4's unique role in protecting our food and fiber supply from a
seemingly limitless supply of pests.
Through IR-4, ARS and other federal and state scientists conduct field
trials and collect data to support registration or reregistration by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency of certain pesticides and biopesticides.
Mostly, these are pest controls for use on a minor cropthat is, a crop
grown on less than 300,000 acres nationwide. But IR-4 projects also address
minor-use pest controls applied to multimillion-acre crops like wheat and corn.
Every day, you very likely eat or drink some of the rich array of foods
available through IR-4's laborseven if you consider only the so-called
minor crops. These crops occupy a fraction of the nation's 975 million farmland
acres. But they include lettuce, carrots, fresh-market tomatoes, broccoli,
cucumbers, melons, apples, pears, peppers, onions, and dozens of other food,
fiber, and ornamental crops.
IR-4 scientists also seek EPA permission for wide-scale field trials of new
anti-pest technologies. That's why, for example, ARS will soon conduct new
tests of a natural weapon against aflatoxin, a grain contaminant that can
threaten food and feed safety.
Without IR-4's "minor" activities, Americans might have to import
more of the variety of foods needed for a diverse, healthful diet. And our farm
economy would be malnourished if it lost a significant part of the 42 percent
of total sales that minor crops bring in.
"About the only minor things about minor crops are their relative
acreage and their contribution to total pesticide use," sums up ARS
nematologist Bill Johnson. He heads a field and lab program for IR-4 at Tifton,
Georgia. Studies by Johnson and colleagues in Tifton's Nematodes, Weeds, and
Crops Research Unit focus on the environmental fate of pesticides and other
Farmers decide to grow any cropminor or majoronly if the risks
are tolerable. Given the smorgasbord of pest problems, it seems a wonder
anything arrives safely to our dinner plates. Worldwide, over 600 insects cause
enough agricultural damage to make controlling them worthwhile. Additional
threats include thousands of destructive weeds, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and
Last summer's epidemic of Karnal bunt fungus in American wheat is the latest
example of how fast and furiously pests can strike. Within weeks, efforts to
contain the fungus caused world wheat stocks to dip to the lowest level in two
Fully 30 percent or more of the world's potential crop production may be
stolen in advance by pests, according to some estimates.
Meanwhile, population growth lays an ever-increasing burden on farmland
resources. With world population now "only" 5.8 billion, hundreds of
millions of people go hungry. Over the next 40 years, population may rise
another 2.8 billionthe same increase that doubled our numbers over the
past 40 years.
Pest control can scarcely become less important. But today's important
public debates over how best to achieve it often ring chords of uncertainty
about the future of pesticide management research. To chart this future, ARS'
National Program Staff (NPS) will sponsor a workshop for agency researchers in
NPS and more than 100 ARS researchers began planning the workshop last
spring through an Internet discussion group set up by Tifton chemist Don
Wauchope. The scientists soon received new food for thought. The National
Research Council's Board on Agriculture announced plans for a 20-month study of
the future of pesticides in U.S. agriculture.
At the workshop, ARS researchers will grapple with many of the issues to be
addressed by the NRC study. For example, the study is expected to make
recommendations on which chemical controls likely will continue to be needed,
what opportunities exist for reducing health risks, and what federal role is
appropriate to support development and use of chemical controls.
"Perhaps the NRC will find our workshop's report useful," Wauchope
says. "ARS has a large research program on nonconventional pesticides and
on reducing pesticide amounts and unwanted impacts. Our overall strategy is to
minimize pesticide use and to define where such use is appropriate, while
controlling pests effectively, safely, and economically.
"It's appropriate for us at ARS to examine all those aspects of pest
control that are essential for the public good but will not be addressed by the
private sector," says Wauchope. "We feel we can bring unique
expertise and experience to this research."
This rule of thumb has guided ARS researchers in finding solutions to a host
of problems for four decades. It's still the best guide for the future.
Jim De Quattro
ARS Information Staff