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If used in the wrong combination, environmentally and health-friendly pest control strategies might actually increase crop pest populations. A new European research project, led by UvA researcher Merijn Kant, will put this counter-intuitive idea to the test.

Pests on agricultural crops can be a serious nuisance for farmers who do their best to keep the unwanted bugs in check. In order to limit impacts on the environment and human health, crop protection in the European Union relies increasingly on the use of biological control, pest-resistant plants, and 'green' pesticides containing natural compounds instead of synthetic compounds. As each of these methods are insufficient effective on their own, there is a tendency to combine the strategies. This concept of integrated environmentally-friendly pest control sets the European agenda for agriculture.    

Wrong combinations

However, using the wrong combination of strategies may actually lead to an increase in crop pest populations.'Predator-prey models predict that resistance breeding and pesticides – with synthetic or natural – may hamper biological control to an extent that the level of overall crop protection will often decrease rather than increase', says Dr. Merijn Kant of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Dynamics.   

Giving plants a helping hand by tweaking their genes through targeted breeding to create resistant plants might hinder the actions of biological control agents just as they hinder unwanted pests. One instance in which this can happen is when the plant is resistant because it is less palatable for insects. This will affect not only the harmful insects but also the beneficial ones since their prey will be of poorer quality. Mathematical models predict that under these conditions harmful insects may actually escape predation better than if they feed on plants void of resistance. They can thus reach higher densities and inflict more damage to the crop. In this case, plants without defenses may be defended better with biological control.  

Urgent risk

The EU has recently banned various popular pesticides, creating an open niche for breeders to invest in new resistancies for their crops. The time is now for further research on conflicting environmentally-friendly pest control strategies. 'The counter-intuitive concept should be tested because the results can profoundly alter the rationale behind the design of integrated pest management strategies, says Dr. Merijn Kant.'If we ignore this, we expect an enormous decrease in efficiency of environmentally-friendly pest control, one that resistance breeding and 'green' pesticides cannot compensate for.'

Defenseless Defenses

As the coordinator of the new European project Kant cooperates with scientists from three different research institutions in the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Together they will assess to which extent prey densities in a predator-prey system, i.e. a biocontrol agent and its target pest, are influenced by chemical plant resistance traits and natural pesticides. The three-year project, entitled Defdef (short for 'Defenseless defenses'), has a total budget of €590,000 and has been granted through the Coordinated Integrated Pest Management (C-IPM) second call.

Research profile Merijn Kant

Website Coordinated Integrated Pest Management Europe