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Researchers in the field
Muni Muniappan (left) scours crops for signs of pests. Muniappan is an entomologist who has specialized in biological control and integrated pest management research for more than 35 years.

Big problems, little solutions

Insects, fungi, and other small actors are at the root of many global agricultural issues, but a Virginia Tech team is putting them to work to improve food security.

A global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, plus land and food shortages — all call for unconventional methods. Living up to their lab’s name, experts in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management have long employed living organisms as part of their arsenal. Some are no bigger than the head of a pin.

Trichoderma, a beneficial fungus, is one of those miniature, mighty actors. To the naked eye, it’s a speck, but when applied to plants, it alters whole communities. 

For more than a decade, the Innovation Lab has promoted Trichoderma in developing countries, where the team applies ecologically sound solutions to crop problems. The fungus is easy to find and manipulate — inducing resistance, it fights various plant diseases when applied to seedlings and plants. 

Increasing crop yields in countries such as Nepal and Kenya, the so-called “fighting fungus” also reduces farmers’ reliance on synthetic pesticides, which helps them obtain premium market prices. Its use has also bolstered new industries, such as plant nurseries, where women especially have gained opportunities for economic independence. 

Rebaka Sultana is the executive director of Grameen Krishok Sohayok Sangstha in Bangladesh, the first business in the country to sell the fungus in compost form. 

“As a woman in the Bangladesh context, it’s really challenging,” Sultana said. “But I have been able to prove that this sort of business is possible by a woman.” Most of her employees are women; she has also opened an orphanage for girls on the property.

The Innovation Lab, housed at Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development, has a quarter-century-long history of catalyzing natural organisms to improve food security and reduce pesticide use, in addition to enhancing livelihoods and economic autonomy. The team’s use of natural enemies to combat the devastating papaya mealybug in India, for example, translated to an economic benefit of more than $1 billion over five years. 

The use of natural enemies against pests — “good bugs” versus “bad bugs” — is a hallmark of the Innovation Lab’s program. 

Take, for example, the leaf-feeding beetle Zygogramma bicolorata and the stem-boring weevil Listronotus setosipennis

In Ethiopia, researchers released the two insects to help stop the spread of Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive weed that not only pushes out important native vegetation but also taints livestock milk and irritates human and animal skin. 

“We want to see transdisciplinary, holistic approaches that don’t just act as quick fixes but also maintain our long-term goals,” said Muni Muniappan, director of the Innovation Lab. “It’s important to be creative in what resources we employ so that we don’t contribute to the already high amounts of global waste, pollution, and damage sometimes unintentionally generated by innovation.” 

Meanwhile, across East Africa, the Innova­tion Lab is harnessing natural enemies in another way, through a technique called Push-Pull, a multilevel defense system used against crop threats. Push-Pull starts with intercropping, in which valuable crops such as maize are integrated with plants that push away crop-destroying stemborers. Second, crops are planted around the field to perform the “pull” or trapping duty of attracting the same pest as well as its natural enemies. 

The plants employed in the Push-Pull approach contribute a host of benefits beyond natural enemies and increased yields. Desmodium, used for intercropping, naturally improves soil fertility but also inhibits growth of the invasive weed Striga, whose spread results in complete yield losses. The Push-Pull trap plants conserve soil moisture, improve soil stability, and prevent runoff. They also create fodder for livestock, with farmers reporting a substantial increase in improved milk yields. 

“Push-Pull suppresses weed activity, but benefits other living things, too,” said Tadele Tefera, head of the East Africa project. “Women and children, for example, benefit significantly from it, as weeding is often left to women and children in Africa. Comparing Push-Pull adopters to nonadopters, you’ll see an increase in income and household dietary diversity in Push-Pull adopters, which is a significant win from a nutritional perspective.”