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Pheromones in agriculture: the natural solution

The pesticide industry is changing. For the better.

To date, excessive and unfettered use of herbicides and insecticides have had a damaging impact globally. Controversial herbicides such as Glyphosate (also known as RoundUp) have induced numerous resistance mutations within weeds and insecticides have generated genetic resistance in 550+ arthropods. To address this crisis, innovators are going back to the root of the problem.

Recent crop protection innovation has taken inspiration directly from nature, resulting in integrated pest management (IPM) solutions evolving with the adoption of biopesticides. The ‘biopesticide’ label encompasses a broad range of crop protection agents developed from microorganisms or derived from alternative natural-based substances. Pheromones sit comfortably in this category, but they are not traditional pesticides as such since the term pesticide refers directly to the killing of pests.

In nature, pheromones can be defined as chemicals which are secreted or excreted by an organism directly into the environment. These chemicals can act as mating signals between female and male insects of the same species, and, in most instances, are released by the female sex. The application of manufactured pheromones across pest-riddled farmland induces mating disruption and assists with mass trapping techniques. Certainly, the concept of using pheromones for insect control is not a new one; the ‘sexual confusion’ method dates back to 1976 - developed at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research. However, in recent years, more innovative solutions have begun to enter the market such as microencapsulated pheromones. 

As is the case with bacteriophage technology, specificity is the pheromones’ secret weapon, aptly fitting with the shift towards precision agriculture. An insect-targeted approach ensures that only the problematic species are interfered with, leaving advantageous species to flourish. Genetic differences in both the genes required for pheromone production and the mate recognition response genes (responsible for the pheromone receptor and the male chemosensory response) permit pheromone specificity.

Through exploiting this natural phenomenon, a variety of agrochemical companies and biotech start-ups are developing non-toxic, insecticide solutions using lab-based biomimicry. New technological advances include molecular encapsulation and scaled-up production; pheromones are volatile molecules so encapsulation and water-soluble products can allow for crucial chemical stability.

As the world wakes up to the dangers of synthetic agrochemicals, nature and her pheromones may well be our first port of call.