Dr. Ron Smith, Auburn University professor emeritus and contract Extension entomologist, has witnessed significant milestones in crop protection, especially in cotton. He says the boll weevil eradication program saved cotton in the Southeast, but other production challenges pose new threats.
Farm Press caught up with Smith at the recent American Peanut Research and Education Society annual meeting in Auburn, Ala. He talked a bit about changes he’s seen in insect control and where he thinks the next challenges will emerge.
“I came here in 1972 as an Extension entomologist,” Smith says. “Since then, I’ve had soybean responsibilities, corn responsibility at times and peanuts at times. But let’s focus on cotton.
“Cotton was driving the system when I came here in 1972. So, until we got into the eradication program in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which took a little bit longer in Alabama than it did some other places, everything we did was focused around the boll weevil, which was the key pest at that time.”
Boll weevil eradication changed everything, Smith says, “once we got the wrinkles out of the system. We had a few years where we didn’t have any technology, genetic technologies, like Bt cotton. So, for a few years the tobacco budworms and beet armyworms almost ate us alive.”
He says the future of cotton in the South was in jeopardy.
Technology save cotton industry
Technology saved the cotton industry, he says. “Fortunately, Bt cotton came in around 1996 and that saved us.”
For a while.
“We went into a very low spray environment with Bt cotton, and we had people making 2 bales per acre, and they didn’t make a single foliar spray.”
It was good while it lasted, Smith adds. “Eventually, the stinkbugs found out the secret.” With the boll weevil no longer an economic pest, and Bt cotton taking care of most worm pressure, producers were able to make good yields with few or no insecticide sprays.
“So, stinkbugs came into the system, and they’ve been a prominent player in insect damage since that time. We are really having to watch those closely now.”
Smith says a lot of folks thought the stinkbug was something new in Southern cotton fields. “Some thought we had a new pest. But I went back and found a 1903 book, and when they started listing insects back in 1903 — before the weevil was listed — the stinkbug was there.”
The reduction in pesticide applications possible with boll weevil eradication and transgenic cotton had created a void for the stinkbug. Smith said weevil and worm sprays had been killing stinkbugs for many years.
“We had been killing stinkbugs by spraying for worms (and weevils) for about 90 years. That’s an interesting little tidbit, I think.”
Even with some disagreements over the need for the eradication program, Smith says it saved the industry.
“Oh, there’s no question about it. It saved the cotton industry in the Southeast. There were a lot of arguments, pros and cons, on eradication. The only thing I ever said was, ‘I don’t think you can do it for what you’ve got budgeted.’ And that turned out to be true because we had to go back to farmers three or four times and get increases.
“But like I say, it has saved the cotton industry. I don’t think we could be competitive in the world market nowgrowing cotton with the weevil in the system.”
“Well, this thing is evolving very fast. You know, we’ve got new pests coming into the system; we’ve got resistance to other things. Those are the things that’s going to be driving the industry in the next few years.”
He expects more innovation to help. “We’ve got genetics coming in. But we’ve got the corn earworm building resistance to Bt cotton. That’s going to be a big player. If you go to the triple gene cotton in the next year or so, we’ll be over that hump for a while. But since the (Bt) genes are still in corn, we expose them there, too. So, it’s never going to die until gene number four gets here.”
I can’t argue his logic.