Biological Control of Pests in Plant Systems

Insect and weed pests cause serious damage to agricultural and natural areas, resulting in economic losses, environmental damage, and human health hazards. Pest populations are expanding and new pests continue to arrive in the western U.S. every year. Many of these pest populations have or will become permanently established. Growers often rely largely on chemical pesticides to control pests, but an integrated pest management (IPM) approach considers additional or alternative tactics to keep pest densities below levels that cause economic or environmental harm. One tactic is biological control, which uses native and foreign natural enemies (e.g., parasites, predators, and pathogens) to suppress pests. Biological control is a natural process, but can be enhanced by releasing natural enemies in a new area where a target pest occurs, supplementing or manipulating natural enemies already present, and/or modifying the environment to give existing natural enemies the upper hand. Biological control is a high-priority alternative because of the potential benefits to agriculture, rural communities, and consumers. Biological control allows farmers to reduce pesticide use and cut costs. Lower pesticide use also reduces risks of air, water, and soil contamination, thereby protecting the quality of life for farm workers, area residents, and native wildlife. This makes biological control a particularly useful option for organic farming, which continues to increase at roughly 20% per year in the U.S. Still, successful biological control has to overcome many challenges. To comply with federal regulations, scientists must carefully select the appropriate natural enemy species, so that they control the target pests but do not harm non-target species or the environment. In-depth studies and rigorous data are needed to support practical biological control recommendations. Furthermore, because target pests often occur in more than one state or area, research and biological control approaches must be highly coordinated.

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