Takeaway: As the practice of controlling pests with their own natural predators becomes more common in commercial agriculture, the push for biocontrol from hydroponics cultivators is now being looked at as an alternative to pesticides. Lacey Macri explores the advantages and benefits of these pest control methods and what they mean for hydroponic growers.
For many researchers and agronomists, biocontrol is not only the preferred method of pest management, but in some cases it is the exclusive means to control crop damage by pests. This is especially true for crops that are certified organic. Modern cultivation methods are advancing at record speeds, and many young, highly intelligent individuals and groups are joining the revolution with a few key principles in mind.
Cultivators of this new generation seek to optimize their production practices using sustainable, environmentally sound techniques, with the health and safety of themselves, their employees, the environment, and consumers at the core of their concerns. Biocontrol pest management practices provide the resources growers need to achieve this “green” method of growing.
The concept of biocontrol is referred to by multiple names as it enters the hydroponics market. Additional keywords include ‘natural enemies’, ‘organic pest control’, and ‘beneficial insects’. Ultimately, they are all the same thing, with a few different modes of action: to control pests by introducing their predators into the same environment.
These predatory insects pose zero risk to the health of plants, or people, as they seek out their food source. The majority of these beneficial insects operate by consuming the young offspring of the pests, typically in the infancy of their development, as they interrupt the life cycle of the colony. This works to prevent further spread. Because of this, biocontrol pest management works best as a preventative measure, as with a standing army of beneficial insects already positioned in the same environment, the pests never have a chance to develop.
For crops that are especially vulnerable to spider mites, biocontrol becomes a lifesaver asmites are known for reproducing quickly. That said, there are still some biocontrol options available to treat established colonies of pests but it can be more expensive and less effective if the colony has already spread uncontrollably. As it consistently saves upwards of 10 per cent of your crop (or even up to 100 per cent, in severe cases), biocontrol easily pays for itself by implementing a customized pest management plan right from the beginning.
There are many unique advantages to biocontrol pest management over traditional methods. Determining which pesticides are safe to use is a complicated task. Although most pesticides that are commercially sold must legally be registered by both the EPA as well as the state DPR (Department of Pesticide Regulation), the risk of toxic chemical residue on consumable crops is still very real.
In some cases, there are chemical treatments available that are exempt from pesticide registration as they are considered “low-risk,” as well as additional products registered for use on “unspecified green plants.” Still, these nebulous and potentially dangerous treatment methods can’t and won’t hold a candle to safer, more effective alternatives.
The time and other costs associated with the registration process would be greatly reduced for the certification and approval of biocontrol, as there is no risk of potentially dangerous chemical byproducts from using the natural enemies method.
The integration and push for biocontrol for all cultivation methods and crops opens the door to additional revenue streams through the taxation of a higher-priced end product. We already know that certified organic crops often cost more due to improved safety levels and production practices, and many people are happy to pay more for that peace of mind.
From an operational perspective, cultivation facilities that use biocontrol methods caneliminate restricted entry intervals whereby growers and their employees must wait a set amount of time before re-entering the grow space so they don’t risk inhalation of the pesticide.
In some cases, certain organizations are unable to implement pest management practices and subsequently, a portion of their yields are falling victim to pests. Experts in the field of biocontrol pest management report that these methods are best used preventatively, as even a small colony of pests will have detrimental effects on the ultimate harvest. Traditional pesticides are notorious for losing their effectiveness midway through cultivation, as many insects build up resistance to the chemicals.
This lapse in efficacy is largely responsible for reduced yields. Additionally, the repeated use of chemical pesticides poses a risk to the general health of the plant and can actually reduce yield quantity and quality, even when the presence of pests has ceased. Conversely, biocontrol pest management mimics the Earth’s natural ecosystems, where plant pests and their natural enemies interact to provide a healthier environment for plants to thrive.
Typically, determining a biocontrol pest management plan depends mostly on square footage of grow space, crop type and which pests have been a problem previously. These predatory insects are usually only introduced into the environment every two to four weeks, depending on surrounding circumstances when used preventatively. Because of this, growers of all sizes can benefit from this strategy, as the costs are scaled proportionately.