Chemical engineer Frances Arnold of Provivi. Chemical engineer Frances Arnold of Provivi.

Nobel Prize winner working with farmers to seek alternatives to pesticides

Mating disruption technique used on moths in Guanajuato

A company co-founded by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is helping farmers in Mexico to reduce their use of pesticides through a pest management technique known as mating disruption.

Provivi, co-founded by the United States chemical engineer and 2018 Nobel laureate Frances Hamilton Arnold, has successfully completed the first stage of a pilot program aimed at preventing the reproduction of the cotton bollworm, or corn earworm, a moth whose larvae feed on a wide range of crops including corn.

In the pilot program, Provivi worked with 40 farmers to place dispensers containing synthetically-produced mating disruption pheromones on 245 hectares of land in Pénjamo, Guanajuato, where white corn is grown.

The dispensers expel sex pheromones that make male moths believe that there are females in the area with which they can mate.

However, in most cases, male moths will fail to locate a female and thus the mating process is disrupted.

The critter at the heart of the problem.
The critter at the heart of the problem.

“As a result, reproduction is prevented, and less offspring will be produced in the next generation. This way of controlling the insect population and decreasing the size of future generations forms the concept behind mating disruption,” Provivi explains on its website.

“Unlike traditional insecticides, which aim to eliminate insect larvae already present in the field, mating disruption does not kill insects. Instead, [mating disruption] is a preventive method that hinders the generation of worms and reduces the insect population over each season of use.”

The pest control technique allows farmers to avoid the use of pesticides that might be harmful to people and/or the environment while still protecting their crops from hungry caterpillars.

The pheromone pilot program, which began in May, has succeeded in keeping the Guanajuato farmers’ corn crops larvae-free, the newspaper El Financiero reported.

“Today more than ever, the world needs agriculture to move toward a clean, efficient and sustainable approach. Thanks to the [pheromone production] technology, the use of insecticides in corn fields could be reduced by up to 40% – 100% in some cases,” said Gloria Meléndez, a director at Provivi México.

She added that the mating disruption technique has been successful in protecting other high-value crops, such as apples and grapes, from pests.

Farmers in other parts of Mexico have also placed pheromone dispensers on their land to protect crops including sorghum, tomatoes and chickpeas.

Source: El Financiero (sp) 

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