The following is an excerpt of a blog post by Joan Conrow on the Cornell Science Alliance for Science blog about new research to help farmers in the fight against the destructive diamond-backed moth.
Like Rachel Carson — his inspiration for studying eco-friendly insect pest management — Cornell University Professor Tony Shelton has encountered controversy in his academic career.
Carson, a biologist who published the pioneering 1962 environmental creed “Silent Spring,” was subjected to fierce criticism from chemical companies for challenging the widespread, indiscriminate use of pesticides and documenting their unintended consequences on the natural world.
Shelton, whose passion for entomology and food security was sparked by Carson’s book, has been excoriated for trying to carry out a vision she articulated in her final chapter, where she wrote about sustainable alternatives to the use of broad-spectrum insecticides.
“She advocated using very narrow-range tactics to control insect pests, including insect pathogens, biological control — even the drive of an insect’s life forces to destroy itself,” Shelton recalled during a recent conversation at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. “That idea fascinated me, that we could use biology to control a pest, instead of insecticides.”
Specifically, Carson wrote: “Some of the most fascinating of the new methods are those that seek to turn the strength of a species against itself, to use the drive of an insect’s life forces to destroy it. The most specialized of these approaches is the male sterilization technique.”
Carson anticipated the intense opposition to her work, and time has proven her right on many of the issues she highlighted. Shelton also knew full well what he was getting into. Still, he admits to being disappointed by the “misinformation” directed at his research to find a non-insecticidal control for the diamond-backed moth (DBM). The voracious pest devastates cabbage, New York’s most valuable crop, and annually causes some $4-5 billion in damage globally.
It also rapidly develops resistance to insecticides — sometimes in less than two years, Shelton said. “I wondered are there other tools we can use that are biologically based and effective?”
To read the rest of the blog post, please visit the Cornell Alliance for Science website.