Nov 13, 2023
MSU research team receives $6M grant to study insect pest management

A Michigan State University research team has received a $6 million grant to study insect pest management strategies for U.S. potato production systems.

The team, led by Zsofia Szendrei, a professor in MSU’s Department of Entomology, will use the grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore alternative management solutions to using neonicotinoids.

A Michigan State University research team has received a $6 million grant to study insect pest management strategies for U.S. potato production systems. Photo: File

The grant was initiated through discussions in 2020 with growers and potato industry representatives who highlighted the need for such a project, according to a news release. Funding will be provided for at least three years, with the chance for additional USDA funds at a later date.

Neonicotinoids are insecticides which have been commonly used in agriculture since the 1990s and are usually applied at planting to curb insect activity. But insects can become resistant to neonicotinoids, according to the release, while pollinators and other organisms, including fish and amphibians, can be harmed by the chemicals.

Some businesses and food retailers have stopped selling products that are grown using neonicotinoids, and some U.S. states, along with Canada, have restricted the use of the chemicals. The European Union has banned neonicotinoids.

In January 2020, the EPA proposed an interim decision that explores new limitations and safety measures for using the chemicals. The EPA is still reviewing how to use neonicotinoid insecticides in ways that won’t have unintended consequences.

The USDA-funded project is part of the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Joining MSU’s Szendrei 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.


“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 in the release

The team will examine different approaches in multiple U.S. potato-growing regions, 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.

“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.”

Long-term goals include understanding effects on the potato industry of the shift away from neonicotinoids as well as barriers to adopting a system without the chemicals.

Researchers will create an interactive map growers can use to detect when crops are at risk of an upcoming pest attack, according to the release. Similar maps have been created for apples in Washington. Additionally, Douches will develop and test different varieties of insect-resistant potatoes.

“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.

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