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Natural Helpers for pest control

May 3, 2017

Nematoden as a biological pest control
Nematoden as a biological pest control

Biological crop protection effectively complements the use of chemical products. Farmers use natural organisms to protect their crops from pests. BASF uses a variety of living organisms for targeted pest control, for example tiny worms, called Nematodes. These tiny worms are a remarkably diverse species, with up to 20,000 different strains described to date. Some attack crops and are pests in their own right but others have an attribute
that can be harnessed for good: they burrow their way into insects and snails and put a stop to their greedy antics. Nematodes are therefore used alongside useful bacteria,
viruses, insects and plant extracts for biological pest control. The basic idea: Harmless organisms kill or displace crop pests such as locusts, harmful insects, bacteria, molds and slugs that cause diseases and threaten harvests. Although these natural helpers can never fully replace chemical agents, biological pest control provides effective support. Vegetable and fruit farmers particularly appreciate their effects shortly before harvesting, as they protect the crops and fruits without leaving any chemical residues behind.

"Biological pesticides are effective in combating low to mode-rate levels of infestation," said Burghard Liebmann, group leader biological crop protection at BASF research. "In most cases, however, the level of infestation and pest exposure is so high that a combination of chemical and biological agents is necessary to provide effective control." Precisely therein lies BASF's strength: "With our very broad product spectrum, we can offer an individual and flexible solution tailored to meet the particular problem and local conditions. This is also a very important consideration in counteracting and preventing insect pests and plant pathogenic fungi from becoming resistant to certain chemical crop protection agents," Liebmann pointed out.

BASF is a world leader in biological pest control. In April 2016, the company launched a brand new research and development center for biological crop protection and seed solutions at the headquarter of the Crop Protection division in Limburgerhof. near Ludwigshafen, Germany. The new center is the hub of BASF's global network of research and development sites and test centers for biological crop protection and seed solutions, with facilities in Brazil, France, China, the United States and Canada.

Targeted culturing breeds helpful organisms

BASF's portfolio already contains biological crop protection products to combat all sorts of plant pathogenic fungi, insects and slugs that cause problems in agriculture and horticulture. The process leading to the production of a biological pest control agent always begins in nature. Researchers identify and isolate natural microorganisms from soil samples or plants, and collect them in a microorganism strain library. BASF has its own strain library which houses thousands of microorganisms awaiting their potential mission. When scientists want to develop a new biological crop protection product, they will look here to find exactly the right organism for the job, for example, to fight a certain fungus or insect pest. Once it has been identified, the real work begins: Sufficient amounts of this organism need to be grown in equipment called fermenters. The creatures can be quite picky, too: "Nutrients, temperature, oxygen levels – all impact their well-being and ability to reproduce," the biologist revealed.

To ensure survival, storability and ease of use for farmers, the microorganisms are formulated and turned into a product with good performance properties. Again, specialist expertise is called for. "The microorganisms must be transformed into a kind of resting state but without letting them dry out and die. And since every organism reacts differently to environmental influences, it takes a lot of experience and know-how to develop a good product," Liebmann said. The result is a powder or liquid product that farmers dissolve in water or dilute before spraying them on crops or soil.

If slugs are the foe, Nemaslug® is a good choice – a mulluscicidal powder containing nematodes of the species Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita. When the nematodes encounter a slug, they burrow into its body through their breathing orifice. The slug loses its appetite within two days and dies in about a week.

Simple principles, originating in nature and highly effective: this is what makes biological pest control so very interesting. "We plan to explore a lot more new applications for biological crop protection in the future." One example is using beneficial nematodes to protect citrus trees. BASF is now launching Nemasys® R in Florida. Nematodes of the species Steinernema riobravae contained in the product attack beetle larvae that burrow their way into the roots of citrus trees and threaten the livelihoods of Florida's orange growers. Liebmann is confident: "We have not yet reached the end of our options in biological crop protection. Not by a long shot."