Plants for plants: a way forward for sustainable crop protection

Chemical pesticides are commonly used by Nepalese commercial farmers to manage pests and diseases in fruits and vegetables. These are often misused, overused and sometime result in poisoning or even accidental death. Consumer demand for ‘cleaner’ and environmentally friendly products are in increasing as well as farmer interest in reducing costs and organic production.

As Plant Protection Officer (PPO) under Ministry of Agriculture and Development, Government of Nepal, my focus is on the exploration of pest management techniques that are safe for consumers, farmers and the environment. Farmer knowledge of currently available non-chemical pest management techniques is limited. These can include locally prepared and tested botanicals, entomopathogens (imported from India) or insect lures (attract and kill approach) which are available but with a limited supply.

Augmentative biological control, used to rear parasitoids and predators of insect pests and release them into field, comes with a high cost of rearing. So techniques that can enhance local and naturally available natural enemies’ is a more cost effective option for farmers. This is done using habitat management, where natural enemies are supported through provision of plants that provide shelter, nectar, alternate hosts and pollen to enhance natural enemies’ usefulness in managing pests. Research has shown that native plants could be more beneficial for native predators and parasitoids compared to exotic plants.

My current research is studying native plants in the Australian brassica agroecosystems. Under the prestigious Endeavour Australia Award – Post Graduate Scholarship, I am working with Australian native plants and their role in providing benefits to natural enemies. This includes initial screening of multiple native species ability to provide nectar to natural enemies. This work has already been published by Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eea.12668

In tandem with screening native species, field experiments have shown that perennial native vegetation adjacent to commercial brassica fields act as a source of natural enemies, but effect was only observed in fields where selective or ‘soft’ chemical insecticides are used. Another field experiment with selected insectary native plants assessed the pest suppression effect and other ecosystem services such as pollinator enhancement and soil biological activity. The Australian species Mentha satureioides increased pest suppression and pollination and attracted more native butterflies without reducing soil biological activity. Agroecosystems that can deliver multiple ecosystem services are a fundamental part of sustainable intensification of agriculture. Farmers are always interested in harnessing multiple benefits from single action. Farmers in Australia have a positive attitude towards native vegetation and are pleased with the concept of incorporating native plants in to pest management.

I am near to completion of my PhD degree and will soon join my office in Nepal as PPO. Using my skills and experience I intend to develop and explore habitat management using Nepalese native plants. My interest is on the identification of plants in collaboration with local farmers and conduct a preliminary study on biological pest suppression. We have organized farmers group, which has been involved in farmer field school for integrated pest management. I will mobilize those groups and conduct experiments in their involvement. It can be done easily working alongside with them without expensive tools and equipment. I already mentioned about multiple ecosystem services along with biological crop protection. So, this research will be extend in seeking different ecosystem services. Nepalese farming system is very diverse. Majority of farmers are small holder with integrated farming system such as inclusion of crops, beehives, livestock etc. In this context, crop protection along with other services will benefits their livelihood. For example, those insectary plants could be beneficial to honeybees and/or could be used as fodder crops for livestock.

Sunita Pandey, Australia

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