Saturday, 21 March 2015

Biocontrol Agents for Organic Farming

What are biocontrols exactly? Is it stuff you use for organic
farming, like ladybugs, sulfur and maybe soap-spray? Right on
folks, but much-much more. Things change fast nowadays, ya know.
The biotechnology which produces many of the relatively new and
growing list of biocontrols for the agricultural supplier  (and
gardener) has ushered in the next era of pest-controls… at least
as a viable alternative anyway. It’s growing so fast however,
it’s the new terminology, not the technology, which you have to
contend with first. I think we need a quick review.

To begin with, the term ‘biocontrols’ is slang for ‘biocontrol
agents' and defined as “biological derived or identical to a
biological derived agent”. That means the term covers all types
of environmentally safe products. Watch out though, some of the
terminology might get confusing. ‘Biological control agents’ is a
more specific term… meaning only beneficial insects, nothing
else, although these bugs are often just referred to as
‘beneficial insects' or 'beneficial organisms’, somewhat slangy
terms. Within that, there are sub-categories, insects which might
be classified as ‘predators’, ‘parasites’ or ‘weed-eating
invertebrates’ which are “living organisms used for controlling
the population or biological activities of another life-form
considered to be a pest”. If you noticed, the industry prefers to
say ‘control’ instead of ‘kill’… a hedge maybe?

Today, there are about 30 commercially available predators, like
spiders, mites and beetles, which seek out and kill other bugs.
They are hatched, raised and sold by companies called
‘insectaries’. The number of parasites put to work has grown
also, about 60 of them critters, the likes of tiny wasps, flies
and a myriad of other parasites, parasitoids (host-killer
parasites) and also a few protozoan. Parasites live on (or in)
various ‘hosts’ (their victims) which impede the host’s
development or generally causes them injury. A protozoan,
however, is a ‘microbial control agent’, a different kind of
agent, which are not to be confused with biological control

There are about 25 biological control agents (good bugs) which
control weeds although they’re often just called 'beneficial
insects', the most common slang term which farmers use. By
whichever term, even though they don’t eat or live off other
bugs, they go around doing good deeds by controlling weeds.
Anyway, these weed-destructive bugs consist of moths, weevils,
beetles and flies. A fungus or two are also available for the
control of weeds and fungus, like a protozoan, is also a
‘microbial control agent’. As you might suspect, the honeybee is
also considered a beneficial insect but since the Africanized bee
began infecting some of their ranks, they can also cause
problems. I remember once when all bees led a dignified life
within their beehives but today many are terrorists and live in

In addition, the industry has identified about a dozen different
beneficial nematodes, which, if you didn’t know already, are tiny
little wormlike-looking creatures that live underground.
Nematodes usually just eat roots and are normally considered
destructive but these little guys like to eat other bugs. The
industry has no interest in employing any vegetarian nematodes
that are non-selective, they just want bug eaters. From here on,
it starts to get more complicated and scientific sounding.
Microbial control agents, like fungi and protozoan, also mean
other teeny-tiny microscopic things like bacteria and viruses.
Farmers use about 25 different kinds to control undesirable bugs
and fungi.

The use of viruses and bacteria can sound kinda scary but don’t
worry, microbial control agents in Arizona are regulated by the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Environmental Services
Division of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Plant Quarantine
Act (PQA) but you still need permits from the State of Arizona,
USDA, APHIS and from Biotechnology and Environmental Protection
(BEEP). Only then can a farmer apply the stuff… if his crop ain’t
already ate up. We’re not done yet, we still have ‘biochemical
control agents’. These are semichemicals such as plant-growth
regulators, hormones, enzymes, pheromones, allomones and
kairomones which are “either naturally occurring or identical to
a natural product that attract, retard, destroy or otherwise
exert a pesticidal activity”. Impressive, huh?

But that’s still not enough already… the EPA wants to push a
stupid term called ‘biorational pesticides'. And this is where
they get picky… you can use the term if you’re (1) not talking
about bugs or (2) not talking about synthetic-made stuff they
don’t think is identical enough to a given product of nature.
Anyway, I hate that term, there is nothing rational about causing
more confusion. In all, there are over 200 biocontrols of which
some have multi-use applications which equates to about 300
specific uses and there are at least 400 of these 'products' on
the market. Competing companies supplying the same product
accounts for this discrepancy.

A lot of biocontrols have hard-to-pronounce, stuffy-sounding
scientific names, which, I think, are thought-up by
laboratory-shackled scientists who jealously hate farmers and
like to see them get tongue-twisted and embarrassed. One such
case is ‘bacillus thuringiensis’, a bacteria widely used and
marketed in different variations but to spoil their fun, farmers
just call them ‘B-Ts’. Another thing farmers can use are made of
‘nuclear polyhedrosis viruses’ but they don’t sound very
environment-friendly to me.

What I really think is dumb are those goofy brand-names the
distributors use for these biocontrol products such as ‘Doom’,
‘Condor’, ‘Futura’, ‘Grandlure’ and so forth. I think they hired
the same marketing guys that work for the car companies… they
think brand names gotta sound ‘cool’.

Farmers also use juvenile hormones and behavioral modifiers.
Juvenile hormones keep bugs from maturing, thus denying them
their adult and reproductive cycle. It should be obvious what
behavioral modifiers do... it makes them less destructive.
sell plant-growth regulators too, made from
cytokinins and gibberellic acid. There are also sex hormones on
the market to confuse and attract bugs. Confusion and bugs I
don’t need.

In summary, these biocontrols are incredibly diverse but they
don’t include genetically engineered plants which have disease or
insect resistant qualities, but that’s another story. See
Genetically Modified Food (external link) or else genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) (external link)

Well, that sorta brings you up-to-date, so consider yourself
‘bio-informed’. Remember though, you can’t go around saying
‘biological’ anymore because people might think you’re talking
about bugs. If you’re still confused, talk about something else
or you could end up getting mighty embarrassed. Some words might
even sound organic when they're not. I knew a farmer who, when he
first heard the term ‘entrepreneur’, asked… “What kinda manure is

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