Biopesticide-based pest control strategies

By Jack Petree

North America’s forests are under siege; attacked by armies of insects, clouds of fungal spores, and battalions of bacteria infecting and killing millions of trees each year with more of the same on the way, courtesy of a global economy.

Traditional weapons in the battle for the forests have often involved the spraying of synthetic chemicals to control dangerous pests.  In many areas, intense social resistance to the use of those chemicals has meant untreated forests, so the pests live on to infect or re-infect healthier woodlands.  Bugs have also learned to live with synthetic chemicals; chemical resistant strains survive, evolve, and become immune to treatments that killed their forebears. Drought conditions weaken trees and make them defenseless against pests looking for a home.    

New kinds of warfare based on new breeds of biopesticides are, however, allowing for optimism that the battle to preserve the forests can be won. Landowners, sawmilling companies, harvesting contractors, environmental activists, and anyone else depending on the health of the world’s forests would do well to support efforts like those currently underway at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to promote the creation and implementation of biopesticide-based pest control strategies in America’s woodlands.


Biopesticides are derived from animals, plants, bacteria, and minerals found in nature. The well-known pesticide neem, an oil derived from the seeds of a plant native to the Indian subcontinent, is one example.

The past two decades have seen a surge of interest in biopesticides, especially in agriculture because most of the newly developed pesticides can be targeted to specific pests (Many, if not most, chemical pesticides kill good bugs as well as bad.). Most of the newly developed biopesticides are also environmentally benign in most respects; overspray into wetlands and other sensitive areas is usually not a problem for fish and species other than the targeted bug. That surge, expedited by EPA’s simplified registration process for the “natural” products has resulted in acceptance for the marketplace of a total of 299 registered biopesticide active ingredients and 1,401 active biopesticide product registrations. By all accounts, hundreds more are in the research, development, and registration stages.

The biopesticides being created today are a far cry from the natural bug killers that have been in use for decades, or even centuries, in agriculture. Today scientists labor away in laboratories researching the genomes of specific pests and their natural enemies. Researchers work at the molecular level to discover how plants and their pests interact and, more importantly, to develop pathogens toxic to specific pests.

The Forest Service Has Taken Notice

The Forest Service has taken notice of the expanding interest in biopesticides, establishing a Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team (FHTET) to manage information regarding the use of biopesticides in sensitive forests and to encourage further development of effective biopesticides.

Biopesticides that the Forest Service has already had a hand in establishing for use in North America’s forests include products designed to reduce or eliminate gypsy moth, Douglas-fir tussock moth, the emerald ash borer, and hemlock woolly adelgid infestations. They have also contributed to developing approaches for controlling the spread of invasive plant species.

The 15-year-old Biological Products Industry Alliance also points to some of the new biological products that are useful in promoting forest health. Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki (strain ABTS-351), is a naturally occurring bacterium that is toxic only to caterpillars and when ingested, leads to death within two days. “This active ingredient has minimal environmental impact and will not harm other types of insects, fish, birds, or mammals,” according to the alliance. “Nucleopolyhedrosis virus (NPV) is a naturally occurring virus highly selective to gypsy moth. The virus is ingested, then destroys the internal organs of the insect. These applications have been noted to be highly effective against small gypsy moth caterpillars.”

With industry support, the Forest Service, in cooperation with forest-product-related associations, pesticide producing companies, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is likely to continue to bring new products to the marketplace. If gypsy moths, and emerald ash borers, can be attacked with specific biopesticides, there is no reason pine beetles, budworms, and other pests cannot be controlled as well.

While a new industry in terms of market penetration, the biopesticide industry (including agriculture, forestry, and other sectors) is not only substantially outpacing the conventional chemical industry’s growth, it is projected to gain ground even more rapidly than has already been the case.

DunhamTrimmer LLC, a leading international market research firm focusing exclusively on the global biological and natural product plant protection and plant health market sector, projects the global market for biopesticides —a market with sales of only $250 million at the turn of the century, and sales exceeding three billion dollars in 2016— will pass the five billion dollar mark in 2020. “I can tell you that our market projections see the global market exceeding $11 billion by 2025,” reports Mark Trimmer, one of the company’s principals.

Driven by pressure from activists across the special-interest spectrum and with support from the U.S. EPA, growth in the use of biopesticides is likely to be not only desired, but required, in the near future. The forest products industry should add its support to the movement toward the “new” approaches to pest management. The advantages are potentially great while the downsides appear to be negligible.

Jack Petree is a writer, public policy researcher, and owner of Tradeworld Communications.

TimberWest November/December 2013
July/August 2017

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