October 7, 2014

The Scientist: Prof. Arthur Agnello Can Safely Remove Bugs From Trees

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The use of pesticides to eliminate insect pests on fruit trees is common throughout the world. To reduce the amount of damage and harm conventional pesticides pose to the environment, Prof. Arthur Agnello ’74, entomology, is looking at ways to produce high quality fruits without the use of toxic substances. Working at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, Agnello says his job is to make pest-management suggestions to the New York fruit industry.

“We provide guidance and recommendations about the best ways to use pesticides, the timing, the decision making that is involved in what kind of pesticides to use at what time, so the broad focus of my research is to test season-long management programs that incorporate many different kinds of pest management approaches against a whole range of pests in orchards,” Agnello said.

According to Agnello, in the eyes of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, any product that attacks or kills a pest, disease or pathogen is considered a pesticide, no matter what it is composed of or what environmental implications it has.

“Pest management methods all have to be registered by the EPA with an EPA number and they have to go through regulatory scrutiny, testing against non-target species and such,” Agnello said. “If a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was found to be a good way of killing an insect pest in an orchard, in order to sell it as a product, you would have to register it as a pesticide. It’s one of those things, it’s the way the system is set up.”

Historically, pesticides have been artificially-derived, toxic materials that posed great harm not only to the immediate surroundings, but also to those working on the orchard. However, according to Agnello, since new legislation and programs to raise awareness on the dangers of pesticides came about in the 1970s, the focus has been shifting to produce less environmentally-harmful, but just as effective, methods against pests.

“Most commercial pesticides come out of the laboratory, basically,” Agnello said.

Ingredients for conventional pesticides derive from organisms such as soil microbes, fungi or bacteria, which are then purified and chemically modified to become more effective against pests, according to Agnello.

The move away from toxic pesticides has shed light on organic production methods. According to Agnello, organically produced materials are frequently treated with pesticides, despite popular belief — the difference is that materials used in organic productions have not been chemically modified or enhanced. However, organic production methods have their own drawbacks.

“The problem is that these natural products tend not to be quite as active and not as effective as the chemically modified formulations that come out of the laboratory. So it is much more difficult to kill an insect pest or kill a disease pathogen using them, than you would with a conventional pesticide that would not be registered for use in organic production,” Agnello said.

Agnello said his research on non-toxic ways to produce fruits aims to find pest-regulating methods that are effective but not harmful to the environment. Agnello said he believes one of the most promising non-toxic methods is pheromone disruption.

Courtesy of Prof. Arthur AgnelloMagic wand | This twin-tube pheromone dispenser is used by Prof. Arthur Agnello ’74, entomology, to spread female insect pheromone in orchards to confuse males and prevent mating.