NE2001: Harnessing Chemical Ecology to Address Agricultural Pest and Pollinator Priorities

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

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The need, as indicated by stakeholders:

Agriculture is both culturally important and an economic driver in the Northeast, and both culture and economics are driving us towards a strong need for more sustainable agroecosystems. For example, the total value of principal crops in the Northeast was > $5.32 billion and Northeast vegetable growers harvested over 133,000 acres with a value more than $700 million. New York alone ranked 5th in the nation for vegetable production and garnered $323 million from fruit, berry and grape production (NASS 2013). In addition, agriculture in the eastern United States is focused on many crops that require insect pollination. The combined value of these crops based on 2016 data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://www.nass.usda.gov/) is $10.49 billion/year. And pollination services in agriculture are worth about $500 million for the State of New York alone, highlighting the economic importance of both the crops and the beneficial insects that support them. Food security is of growing importance for the large segment of the population living in large cities which rely on imported food and also for the rural population, so maintaining agricultural productivity is essential for the well-being of many in the region.

Agriculture in the Northeast is valuable and productive, relying on a mix of growing practices that range from heavy reliance on pesticides to integrated pest management and adopting organic practices. To support this diverse base of food production, innovations are needed that reduce the risks of pesticides in conventional agriculture and enhance the productivity in organic systems. On behalf of stakeholders, the Northeast IPM Center states that they 'are enthusiastic about alternative, non-pesticidal strategies that unite several disciplines and lead to sustainable solutions'. They continue to say “the demand for organic fruit and vegetables continues to grow, and producers are demanding holistic, ecology-based systems”.  Northeast regional priorities for fruit, vegetable and specialty crops are replete with calls for research and sustainable practices to reduce the impacts of insect pests and to protect valuable pollinators. This multi-state project seeks to harness innate properties of crops and agroecosystems to address pest and pollinator priorities. Although the project does not advance specific research questions restricted to particular crops, the broader umbrella allows for dynamic groups to form, meet annually, and address pressing questions in applied pest and pollinator management across the region.

The purpose of this multistate project is to provide a framework and opportunity for collaboration for diverse land grant researchers to work together to solve pressing problems in pest and pollinator management. The project aims to bring people together around a set of general goals. This broad umbrella allows us to coalesce a dynamic group of researchers from different locations and funding situations. The multistate project itself does not have funding for participants, which means that the project must be broad in order to bring in as many chemical ecologist participators as possible. Participants fall into three categories from which they may garner funding to participate in the project:  1) Researchers at a subset of Agricultural Stations that can apply for multistate funding to conduct a specific research project, 2) Researchers who can bring in external funding to conduct a project in support of the multistate project goals, and, 3) researchers who have no funding other than a small amount to cover the cost of travel to the annual multistate meeting. Even in New York, a State where researchers can receive funding through the multistate project, the individual researchers must apply for separate funding by submitting an individual proposal with a specific set of questions and methods that must be peer reviewed before funding is received.

Because of these funding differences among participants, we have purposefully written topical areas that are broadly important for advancing applied agricultural pest and pollinator management in the northeast and the US. This allows researchers to join dynamically and contribute in a way that works for them and their research partners. Some people simply use attendance at the annual meetings to share ideas, which have already been enormously beneficial and often leads to the development of funded projects down the road. Others use the multi-state project to launch an external grant, such as research grants and the USDA-NIFA equipment grants. This flexibility allows us to have broad participation, innovation, and shared goals, which has been key to allowing this group to encompass the top set of researchers it has attracted.

Proposed objectives:

  1. Develop chemical ecology tools, information and deployment strategies to support sustainable agriculture by reducing damage by pests in crops and ornamentals, including potatoes, brassicas, cucurbits, apples, blueberries, and sweet corn, while maintaining pollinator health in economically important agricultural systems.
  2. Identify the importance of variability and diversity at local and landscape scales and across States on chemically mediated interactions between pests, crops, and beneficial organisms. Test application strategies for managing this variability.
  3. Work to find ways to minimize the impact of pesticides and discover new pesticides that reduce the impact on pollinators, herbivores, microbes and natural enemies of pests.
  4. Exploit knowledge of domestication and breeding history to deploy better strategies to improve crop resilience to novel stressors such as climate change and emerging pests.
  5. Explore and exploit microorganism mediation of multi-trophic species interactions, including bacteria, fungi and nematodes.
  6. Broaden utilization a chemical ecology analytical facility for the Northeast to allow researchers ready access to equipment and technical expertise and increase training of High Quality Personnel.
  7. Conduct Extension and Outreach to facilitate adoption and awareness of science-based chemical ecology to support sustainable production and promote human health and welfare.

The importance of the work, and what the consequences are if it is not done:
As the discipline of chemical ecology matures, knowledge gained in ecological, behavioral and evolutionary studies can be translated into practical and applied pest management. Thus, blending fundamental and applied research enhances the likelihood of sustainable pest management and a reduction in pesticides released into our environment. The consequence of not pursuing sustainable, non-pesticidal management of pests is a continued reliance on insecticides and other pesticides, with potential long and short term adverse effects on our environment for future generations.

Generally, researchers of diverse disciplines converge upon a particular crop or target pest rather than developing management models that cut across a broad range of crops and pests. This multistate project has done the reverse, harnessing the intellectual breadth of chemical ecology practitioners and to focus their interests on agricultural pests and pollinators. Nonetheless, the multi-state team is remarkably diverse, spanning plant breeders, entomologists, applied ecologists, and pathologists. One of our key outcomes is bringing this diverse expertise to a common table annually to promote real-world applications of chemical ecology. 

The technical feasibility of the research:
The field of chemical ecology originated nearly 60 years ago with the identification of an insect sex pheromone. That work engendered the applied practice of pheromone mating disruption and pheromone trapping to inform IPM decisions. Since then, it has become clear that understanding how to manipulate agricultural systems to maximize the benefits of beneficial species while minimizing the negative effects of pests requires understanding the community-wide biological activity of toxins and signaling compounds, particularly those coming from crop plants. Insect pests, natural enemies of pests, and pollinators are also part of a community including pathogens of insects and plants and that measures to control pest species can have negative consequences for beneficial members of the agroecosystem. This knowledge will lead to the development of practical and economic tools to suppress agricultural pests and enhance pollination. A concrete example of applications arising from this multistate is research showing which cultivars of wild and domesticated blueberries are most attractive to the new invasive pest, spotted wing drosophila. In another example, strawberry and apple growers have been provided information on the pesticides in the pollen loads of pollinating bees on their farms. Some farmers have been informed that their bees have high levels of pesticides and they have been aided in reducing the use of or select less harmful pesticides. In addition, a pesticide decision-making guide is available freely on the web and many growers across the Northeast are using this to choose the most pollinator-friendly and effective pesticides (https://pollinator.cals.cornell.edu/resources/grower-resources/).

Key to the future technical feasibility of the project has been the group’s success in developing a regionally accessible facility for chemical analysis of plant defenses and pesticide quantities. Maintaining state of the art equipment is expensive and this group has been able to work together to take advantage of special funding opportunities, such as USDA equipment grants, to improve our technical capacity and provide analysis on a sample fee basis. We continue to work with breeders and molecular biologists to link needs on the farm with technological advances in biology. Thus, we are confident of technical feasibility and fruitful knowledge as the discipline matures and as we begin to elucidate the roles of plant genetics, gene expression, and metabolic pathways that control chemical signaling among plants, pests, natural enemies, microbes and pollinators.  Additional, emerging pests, new opportunities, and changing membership of the multi-state project allow for rapid deployment of collaborations across the region.

The advantages for doing the work as a multistate effort:
The field of chemical ecology is well represented in various land grant universities within the Northeast and while there are pest problems that are unique to the Northeast, there is substantial overlap in pest guilds within the areas comprising the region. The project has already attracted many leading chemical ecologists from the Northeast and across the country. There are 36 PIs involved, 20 of whom have attended the yearly meetings.  In the first meetings, researchers presented the highlights of their research to get to know each other and find points of overlap. At the meeting in 2018 (which also included NYSAES Director Jan Nyrop, and Mary Purcell from the USDA), we specifically discussed ways to strengthen the connection between fundamental discovery and agricultural applications.

Already, the multistate project has been instrumental in allowing researchers to bring in additional resources, with the group bringing in approximately $5 million in grants from diverse sources ranging from the USDA NIFA, the Almond Board of California, Cypress Creek Renewables, Inc, and the IR-4 Minor Crop Pesticide Program. These grants have provided funding to support the chemical ecology multistate project umbrella goals.

Areas advantageous for future multistate efforts have been identified, in addition to continuing many existing projects. These include collaborative work on: 1) emerging non-insect pests, 2) development of new approaches to breeding that include screening diverse pools of cultivated germplasms for quantitative resistance traits; and 3) developing a quantitative framework for understanding the consequences of patchiness in herbivore attack in agricultural systems. Notably, these goals are not specific to a particular crop, but seek to test how chemical ecology approaches can be applied to solve general agricultural problems.

As mentioned above, analytical instrumentation is increasingly a limitation for academic researchers. The equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain and requires a skilled operator, which results in both high initial costs and per sample fees. The regional chemical ecology facility has begun to overcome these hurdles in a cost-effective manner.  By focusing on developing techniques that are useful to researchers across the region, groups at many institutions can access the analytical power of a cutting-edge facility with a trained chemist to aid them with the chemical analysis component of their project. This allows many more researchers to incorporate high-level chemical analysis and elucidation of interactions and mechanisms previously out of reach.

What the likely impacts will be from successfully completing the work:
Impacts will continue to be seen in several areas. For example, we are increasing our understanding of how to manipulate mixtures of crop cultivars and other forms of plant diversity to affect the behavior of pests, beneficials and natural enemies to increase crop yield. Active research is aimed at discovering new plant natural products that can reduce pests and increase beneficials. For example, plants with anti-pathogenic properties are being investigated as a way to protect pollinating bees from parasites, and wildflower strips are being designed to increase pollinator health. The effect of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides in the agroecosystem will continue to be tested to discover which chemicals are both effective and safe for non-target organisms. And, crop varieties will be promoted that are the most valuable given the current pest problems in the region.

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