Research Team Led By MSU Scientist Receives $6M USDA Grant To Study Pest-Management Strategies For Potato Systems

Published online: Nov 28, 2023 Articles Jack Falinski, Michigan State University
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East Lansing, Mich. — A research team led by Zsofia Szendrei, a professor in MSU’s Department of Entomology, has received a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study insect pest management strategies for U.S. potato production systems.

The team will explore alternative management solutions in lieu of using neonicotinoids. This grant was initiated through discussions with growers and potato industry representatives who highlighted the need for a project like this in 2020.

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that’ve been commonly used in agriculture since the 1990s. Neonicotinoid insecticides are commonly applied at planting. Plants absorb the chemicals through their roots and distribute them within themselves as they grow. As a result, insects feeding on the plants encounter the chemicals and die.

However, several factors have jeopardized the future use of these chemicals.

Insects can become resistant to neonicotinoids, having no effect on pests as they attack plants. Pollinators and other nonharmful organisms — even fish and amphibians — can be harmed by their toxicity as well. 

Certain businesses and food retailers have stopped selling products that are grown using neonicotinoids in support of safeguarding pollinators and the environment.

In January 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed an interim decision that explores new limitations and safety measures for using the chemicals. While no final decision has been made, the EPA is still actively reviewing how to use neonicotinoid insecticides in ways that won’t have unintended consequences for nontarget organisms.

Some states in the U.S. have restricted the use of neonicotinoids for recreational purposes. Globally, the European Union has banned them, and Canada has limited their use.

The USDA-funded project, part of the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), is a collaborative effort among institutions and agencies across the country to evaluate alternative pest-control practices on potatoes.

Joining Szendrei from MSU are Dave Douches, a professor in MSU’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, and Steve Whittington, a field crops educator with MSU Extension.

The issues surrounding neonicotinoids have gradually progressed over time. While some information exists on alternative pest management options that exclude the use of neonicotinoids in potatoes, more extensive research into managing pests needs to be conducted. Szendrei said she’s excited that the team is composed of researchers at the forefront of potato research in the U.S.

 “Our team includes an outstanding group of experts who’ll together make significant progress compared to some of the existing smaller efforts without substantial funding,” Szendrei said.

The team is made up of entomologists, potato breeders, social scientists, economists and extension specialists who’ll examine the shift away from neonicotinoids using multiple approaches, with outcomes split into short-term and long-term goals.

In the short-term, entomologists will test insecticides that don’t involve neonicotinoids. Some have already been registered and approved for use, while others are experimental. Szendrei said the hope is to create pest-management programs that are favorable to nontarget organisms and the environment.

“We’ll test different tiers of insecticide programs that rank in how friendly they are to beneficial insects and how effectively they control key pests,” Szendrei said. “It’s like a menu of different pesticides that are put together into a season-long control program.”

Working in multiple states will allow the team to target pest problems specific to particular potato-growing regions of the U.S.

Long-term goals include understanding how the shift away from neonicotinoids will impact the potato industry and what some of the barriers to adopting a system without the chemicals may be, as well as finding solutions for them.

Researchers will also create an interactive map growers can use to detect when crops are at risk of an upcoming pest attack. Similar maps have been created for apples in Washington. With funding from the USDA, the aim is to expand the map to potatoes and make it available to states outside of Washington — potentially the entire country. Szendrei said this type of technology will bolster the effectiveness of the insecticide programs she and other researchers will be developing because it’ll give growers a better idea ahead of time for when and what type of insecticides to use.

Additionally, Douches will develop and test different varieties of potatoes that are resistant against insects.

“If you can breed plants that — to some extent — can withstand or resist attacks by pests, that’s your first level of defense,” Szendrei said.

The grant provides funding for at least three years, with the chance for additional USDA funds to be added at a later date. Szendrei said she’s looking forward to continuing working with growers and providing them with info and strategies that emanate from the team’s research.