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A Journey into the History of Agricultural Pest Management

A Tale as Old as Time

It is believed that the first insect dates back around 385 million years ago based on fossil findings of a wingless creature. To put this in perspective, Homo sapiens began their journey a mere 300,000 years ago. That means that insects have had roughly 384.7 million years to evolve, adapt, proliferate — and if you ask farmers — better prepare themselves to wreak havoc on agricultural operations.  Farming has been a part of human culture for nearly 12,000 years now and with the rate at which humans adapt to circumvent problems, agricultural pests always seem to be a step ahead of farmers. That’s why we thought it would be interesting to take a journey into the history of agricultural pest management.

The Beginnings of Pest Control

As humans began the practice of agriculture around 8,000 B.C., it didn’t take long for early farmers to recognize that pests present a problem for cultivation. One of the earliest records of insect prevention was found to be practiced by the ancient Sumerian society who employed the use of sulfur to deter pests. By 1,200 B.C., farmers in China had also discovered the benefits of essential oils and other plant-derived botanical insecticides as well as wood ash and chalk, which were used to reduce pest problems around stored food items and even in homes. If we move along our agricultural timeline, we have records of Romans using controlled burn methods to help control the locust population and by 450 B.C., humans were also using mosquito nets regularly.

Although these early methods of agricultural pest management may have provided some relief for farmers, they weren’t always as effective as they would have hoped. Oftentimes, as records show, farmers in the Roman Empire felt as though the onslaught of plant diseases and pests like locusts were completely unmanageable. This often led the entire villages to turn to superstitious methods. As outlined in De re Rustica, a Roman manuscript from the era, to protect crops from caterpillars, “a woman ungirded and with flying hair must run barefoot around the garden”. As the most detrimental crop disease of the time, Maxima segetum pestis or cereal rust disease continued to proliferate and wipe out entire harvests, the ancient Romans as well as farmers of other civilizations quickly realized that they needed more firepower against crop threats than silly superstitions.

Modern History’s Take on Pest Management

From the time Romans were sending people into the fields to ward off pests until the early 1700’s, few advances were made in the world of agricultural pest management, at least from a biological control point of view. There are records of farmers in China attempting to utilize predatory insects to control pests — which is a practice still used today — but oftentimes these methods proved to be futile for early farmers. In 1476, cutworms were even “summoned” to court in Switzerland, pronounced guilty, they were excommunicated under the decree of the archbishop — if only it were that easy.

By 1732, farmers were finding their stride during what many refer to as the beginning of the agricultural revolution. This led to a litany of research, new inventions, and improved farming methods. It was around this time that farmers recognized the value of planting crops in uniform rows, which allowed weed removal to be streamlined. By removing unwanted weeds from crops, farmers realized that they were also removing prime real estate for many of the pests that they had battled for centuries.

During the early 1800’s, the first publications and research papers were making their debut around the subject of agricultural pest management. Unfortunately, the research and techniques that had been established to date weren’t enough to curb what is possibly one of the most well-known agricultural disasters in modern history, the Irish potato blight — or the Great Famine. It is estimated that between the years 1844-1851, roughly one million deaths were the result of malnutrition spanning from Ireland’s agricultural loss and an additional two million citizens emigrated from Ireland.

Many people feel that the impact of the Great Famine in Ireland accelerated our research and knowledge around biological pest and disease prevention. It only took three decades after the potato blight that wreaked havoc on Irish citizens for commercial pesticide application to become a viable thought. In 1880, records show that farmers had access to the first commercial machine intended solely for pesticide application via spray. As the agricultural revolution was well under way, in 1888, farmers successfully implemented the first large-scale biological predatory pest control by using vedalia beetles to mitigate the threat of cottony cushion scale, an insect that originated in Australia.

The Previous 100 Years of Commercial Pest Management

By the 1900’s, scientists acknowledged that insects could carry diseases that are transmissible to humans. Between this discovery and the rapid development of synthetic compounds thanks to the industrial revolution, agricultural pest management was kicked into high gear. The first record of aerial insecticide application was in 1921, which was performed to manage the catalpa sphinx moth. Even though DDT synthesization dated back to the 1800’s, it wasn’t until 1930 that researchers understood its insecticidal properties. By 1944, chemists had developed 2,4-D — an herbicide that is still used today.

The benefits of DDT users were not long-lived as reports of insect resistance to the compound were widespread by the 1950’s and 1960’s [2] along with controversy around its safety profile led to calls by many for the elimination of its use. By 1972, the US had banned the use of DDT completely. The risk of potential negative effects of DDT are still widely debated.

Modern pest management still uses variations of techniques that were crafted thousands of years ago. Additionally, technological advances in our ability to create specialized or targeted compounds have revolutionized modern pest management. With the advent of methods like the use of synthetic pheromones and microorganisms that target specific species of pests, agricultural management may seem like an easy game to win these days, but most farmers would disagree.

As humans advance their ability to control pests, so do the pests advance their ability to adapt. That’s why many commercial agricultural operators stress the importance of not only attacking pests when they’re present, but also monitoring them to determine the best time for said attacks. That’s one of the reasons that the onset of AI driven pest pressure monitors like FarmSense’s FlightSensor are giving farmers the ability to maintain pest visibility across their entire operation, amongst other benefits.

Be sure to check out our next piece which will explore the future of agricultural pest management and look at how AI, machine learning, and predictive pest management are the latest weapons in farmers’ arsenal against the ever-adaptive pest.

References:

  1. https://earth.stanford.edu/news/insects-took-when-they-evolved-wings#gs.sulfxp
  2. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-1-4615-9212-9_4.pdf
  3. https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-sapiens
  4. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/15/485722228/where-did-agriculture-begin-oh-boy-its-complicated#:~:text=Sometime%20around%2012%2C000%20years%20ago,like%20goats%20and%20wild%20oxen.
  5. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/1*.html
  6. https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Famine-Irish-history
  7. 7.https://www.fishersci.com/us/en/scientific-products/publications/lab-reporter/2016/issue-4/the-evolution-chemical-pesticides.html#:~:text=Many%20organochloride%20compounds%2C%20such%20as,exploited%20until%20the%20late%201930s.

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