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Science’s Big Battle against Small Enemies

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Research and Science
Apr 09, 2019
Spotted lanternfly
Spotted lanternfly. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

(Editor’s note: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on April 1 proclaimed “Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month.” The following illustrates some of the research that USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supports to control invasive pests in agriculture.)

Good things come in small packages, right? Not always.

Oftentimes, what may appear to be a vibrant field of pastoral charm or gently blowing golden waves of grain are actually battlefields where small invading armies threaten the nation’s economic, social, and environmental well-being.

“Nearly every terrestrial, wetland, and aquatic ecosystem in the United States has been invaded by non-native species, with economic losses estimated at $137 billion per year,” said Robert Nowierski, national program leader for biobased pest management at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

NIFA is in the vanguard of the fight to control, mitigate, and eradicate invasive pests, through funding and national program leadership. NIFA’s invasive pest portfolio includes sponsorship of four Regional Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Centers; establishment of the National Plant and Animal Diagnostic Laboratory Networks; and funding State Agricultural Experiment Station projects, the regional research and extension efforts of multi-state committees, and plant production and protection research conducted through the Small Business Innovation Research program.

IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques, such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, use of resistant varieties, and minimizing the use of pesticides. Benefits of IPM include greater survival of a pest’s natural enemies, slower development of pesticide resistance, less pest resurgence, fewer outbreaks of secondary pests, less negative impact on the environment, and greater worker safety. In addition, many farmers report greater profits because they’ve reduced their expenses on pesticide.

NIFA’s programs support projects from research discovery, through research and development, to extension education and implementation of plans. Some of the higher profile invasive pest projects include the brown marmorated stink bug, spotted wing drosophila, West Nile virus, and the spotted lanternfly.

According to Nowierski, the spotted lanternfly is probably the showiest of the invasive species pests. “I was on an invasive species field tour last year and visited a farmer’s grape vineyard severely impacted by the spotted lanternfly. He lost half-a-million dollars from spotted lanternfly damage to his 40-acre vineyard in 2017!”

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

Category/Topic: Research and Science