Entomologists seek safer pest management tech for NYS

Specialty crop entomologists from Cornell AgriTech and the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSIPM) will use a three-year, $450,000 grant from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to evaluate alternatives for controlling insect pests that threaten the state’s $1.4 billion specialty crop industry.

The scientists will explore alternatives to neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos, which have been shown to harm the environment – as well as pollinators and other beneficial insects – by mounting evidence, including a 2020 analysis of neonicotinoid use in New York by Cornell’s Dyce Lab for Honeybee Studies.

“Cornell is at the forefront of critical IPM research, long working to innovate options for our farmers in managing damaging pests and safeguarding their crops,” said Richard A. Ball, state agriculture commissioner. “The department is proud to support this project that will build on the research underway for our field crops and identify additional solutions to protect our specialty crops and increase economic viability while also protecting the environment.”

After a statewide ban in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency banned chlorpyrifos earlier this year. Now New York lawmakers are considering actions restricting the use of neonicotinoids, commonly referred to as neonics.

“We have invested a lot of time highlighting the risks and benefits of these chemicals, and now it’s time to help farmers assess alternative pest management solutions and provide better digital tools to improve IPM practices,” said Alejandro Calixto, NYSIPM director and co-director of the grant. “We’re in a place right now where there are big gaps in information.”

To close those gaps as quickly as possible for policymakers and growers, NYSIPM joined forces on an existing specialty crop grant with co-directors Brian Nault, professor of entomology, and Kyle Wickings, Cornell’s turfgrass entomologist, to study alternatives that are easy to use, cost effective and pose minor risks to farmers and environment. Another research team at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is working simultaneously to find alternatives for field crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat.

From western New York to Long Island, Cornell’s specialty crop team will test all currently available options for farmers – biological, cultural, physical and chemical – while evaluating the interactions between different tools. Those interactions are critical, Nault said, because farmers will have to use multiple tools to get the equivalent effectiveness of neonics or chlorpyrifos insecticides. And growers can’t wait five years or more for private industry to develop and gain approval for new insecticides.

“In some crops, we aren’t going to have a one-to-one replacement,” Nault said. “That means growers will need to rely more on other nonchemical approaches but could require another insecticide or two.”

Later this month, Nault expects to have preliminary findings from trials of a promising new class of insecticides to control soil-borne pests in vegetables. He’ll also soon start trials of an RNA-interfering pesticide targeting the Colorado potato beetle.

Right now, turfgrass managers at golf courses and athletic fields can use a free online tool developed by CALS to identify and scout for white grubs. And by the end of the year, Calixto said farmers will be able to run real-time crop risk forecasts for the seedcorn maggot in New York’s fruit, vegetable and field crops using NEWA, an online decision support system combining weather and biological data.

“As we seek greater farm sustainability, it’s important to equip New York growers with the best combination of pest management tools and techniques,” said state Assemblymember Donna Lupardo. “Investing in this research can lead to more reliable and cost-effective options for growers, helping to design approaches that benefit our environment, our agricultural industry and the citizens of our state.”