The Insect that Started it all: The Colorado Potato Beetle

Spraying in Paris Green; Colorado Potato Beetle

Spraying Paris Green                        Colorado Potato Beetle

The Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB) is native to Mexico where it fed on a weed, buffalo bur. In 1859, the CPB had adapted to feeding on potato plants in the US and the results were devastating. Yields were reduced, potato prices quadrupled, and many farmers abandoned the crop. Paris Green, a paint pigment, was supposedly determined to have insecticidal properties by a farmer, who after painting his shutters, threw the remaining paint on potato plants infested with CPB. In 1872, entomologists at the USDA recommended that farmers use Paris Green to control CPB and by 1875, spraying Paris Green had become a universal practice in Midwestern potato fields.

“The first major Colorado potato beetle outbreak occurred in 1859 on potato fields about 100 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska. The subsequent expansion in beetle geographic range was somewhat mind-boggling, with beetles reaching the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada before 1880. The first European population was established in France in 1922. By the end of the 20th century, the pest had become a problem all over Europe, in Asia Minor, Iran, Central Asia, and western China. Its current range covers about 16 million km2 on two continents and continues to expand.

Currently, the Colorado potato beetle is widely regarded as the most important insect defoliator of potatoes. One beetle consumes approximately 40 cm2 of potato leaves during the larval stage, and close to an additional 10 cm2 of foliage per day as an adult. In addition to impressive feeding rates, the Colorado potato beetle is also characterized by high fecundity, with one female laying 300–800 eggs. If left uncontrolled, the beetles can completely destroy potato crops.

The Colorado potato beetle has been credited with being largely responsible for creating the modern insecticide industry. Since 1864, hundreds of compounds were tested against this pest, and application equipment was specifically invented to aid their delivery.

Currently, insecticides still remain the foundation of the Colorado potato beetle control on commercial potato farms.”

Authors: Alyokhin, A., et al.
Affiliation: School of Biology and Ecology, University of Maine.
Title: Colorado potato beetle resistance to insecticides
Source: American Journal of Potato Research. 2008. 85:395-413.

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Paying Farmers to NOT use pesticides Stalls Increasing Food Production

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With 2 billion more people inhabiting the earth in the next 40 years, food production must increase. Some countries, such as Switzerland, have adopted policies to encourage farmers to not use pesticides. The non-use of pesticides is slowing down increased food production. Policymakers need to be aware of these consequences.

“We analyze trends in crop yields and yield variability of barley, maize, oats, rye, triticale and wheat in Switzerland from 1961 to 2006. It shows that there have been linear increases in crop yields since the 1960s. However, yields of barley, oats, rye, triticale and wheat have leveled off in Switzerland since the early 1990s, which contrasts linear trends in cereal yields that is usually assumed for Europe. We show a relationship between the introduction of agricultural policy measures towards environmentally friendly cereal production that fostered widespread adoption of extensive farming practices and the observed leveling-off of crop yields. Thus, this paper emphasizes that agricultural policy can be an important reason for slowing crop yield growth.

Recent declines and leveling-off of yields are attributed to the adoption of an environmental program that aims to reduce the environmental load of agriculture as well as to decreasing crop prices.

In Switzerland, agricultural policy reforms in 1992 introduced ecological direct payments for extensive cereal production and led to major changes in production patterns… In this ancillary payment scheme no application of fungicides, plant growth regulators, insecticides and chemical-synthetic stimulators of natural resistance is allowed.

…the share of the cereal production area under this ecological direct payment scheme to the total area under cereals (except maize) was 37% in 1992, increased to 54% in 1997, but remained stable at about 50% since then.

The adoption of extensive cereal production in the framework of ecological direct payments leads to crop yield reductions in different ways: crop yields in extensive farming systems are smaller than for intensive management, simply due to the non-use of agro-chemicals.

Author: Finger, R.
Affiliation: Agri-food and Agri-environmental Economics Group, Zurich, Switzerland.
Title: Evidence of slowing yield growth – the example of Swiss cereal yields.
Source: Food Policy. 2010. 35:175-182.