Plant and Soil Health
September 21, 2022

Redefining our complicated relationship with farm pests

Written By:
Eric Van Fleet, Terramera Senior Scientist

As an entomologist—a scientist who studies insects—you’d expect that I’ve had an affinity for six-legged folks since I was a kid. But unlike most, I was happy to forego the ant farms and the magnifying glasses. In fact, I have had a mortal fear of moths and butterflies since I was 10.

It wasn’t until I started my undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry that I came to realize that not all bugs are thugs—they are a fascinating model for biological work.

Terramera Senior Scientist, inspecting experiments in our automated growth chambers, Vancouver
Eric Van Fleet, Terramera Senior Scientist, inspecting experiments in our automated growth chambers, Vancouver

I’ve spent years studying aphids—a ‘live fast die fast’ bug that feeds off the sap of plants. In doing so, I’ve learnt that science fiction isn’t that far from reality when it comes to these unusual creatures. For instance, aphids are masters of adapting to their environment through a process known as phenotypic plasticity. When an aphid gets stressed by lack of food or predators, they’ll flip a genetic switch and the next generation will grow wings to escape. They’ve even borrowed tools from other organisms to adapt to their environment. Aphids are one of the only animals to make carotenoids—the pigments that color carrots and pumpkins. So, if you ever see a bright pink aphid, it’s doing its best carrot impression.

Our relationship to unfamiliar creatures

Animals are generally defined by their relationships to humans and insects are no exception. Insects that pose a risk to human health or challenge the integrity of our food system are often only a problem because humans created the environment that allows them to thrive out of control. For example, if you’re a Soybean Looper caterpillar, and your lineage have spent millions of years eating soybean plants and someone starts growing thousands of acres of your favorite food right in front of you: would you turn it down?

Pest on soy plant
Pest on soy plant

Without being dissuaded by pest control practices, the loopers are at all you can eat buffet and farmers are at a loss of US$70 billion annually.

In addition to the perfect feast, climate change is having a cumulative effect on the interaction between crops and pests. As temperatures rise, so does the geographical range in which insects can thrive. Places where a farmer could rely on a cold winter to kill off pest populations may now see them overwintering year to year, becoming a significant threat to farmers’ productivity. Extreme weather also puts plants under stress, cutting their ability to use their own natural protective systems to ward off pests. Finally, longer warm periods are allowing pests populations to grow at an unprecedented rate where they can threaten plants and become an unmanageable problem.

At the same time the tools available to farmers, such as pesticides, have contributed to sharp decreases in soil health that will limit our food supply in the long term.

We’re left with one question: how do we balance the needs of humans and the broader ecosystem?

Growing challenges for pest management

Farmers are responsible for feeding the world and are constantly faced with wide-scale challenges including an annual global agricultural crop loss of 40 per cent due to pests.

Many older pesticides have been removed from the market for being environmentally harmful. And the overreliance on some solutions that remain have made many insects resistant to treatment

But to get off the pesticide treadmill we’ve been running on since the industrial revolution, we need to look at things differently and redefine what tools are available to farmers.

Redefining crop protection with new tools and practices

At Terramera, we’re looking to nature for smarter solutions—and using technology to scale them, faster.

For example, we first use digital tools to simulate experiments to predict early outcomes. Then, we use robotics to rapidly conduct experiments for early research and development and growth chambers studies. And finally, we use machine learning to convert our data into predictions, enabling fast and more cost-effective development of safe pest management products.

Terramera machine learning engineer using data to create predictive algorithms

We follow this up by using technology to evaluate the performance of our products on farms with the use of drone imaging data, proving the symbiotic relationship between our natural systems and the technology that can support it.

Terramera Senior Scientist, Eric Van Fleet, at research site where we conduct real life trials on our pest management solutions

While better products are an important tool for farmers, many farmers are finding ways to work with nature by embracing regenerative agriculture practices.

One practice is known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM combines different farming practices and data collection techniques to get better results in an environmentally friendly way. Here’s how:

- Monitoring pest populations to only treat with pesticides when needed

- Rotating crops, planting covering crops and placing ‘trap’ plants in the boundaries of fields to drive down populations

- Releasing beneficial predatory bugs to reduce pest populations

- Rotating between multiple types of pesticides to reduce the risk of pesticide resistance

Insects are only a problem because we’ve created an environment that allows them to thrive out of harmony with nature. By creating smarter products and embracing regenerative practices, we can bring the balance back while protecting our food system.

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