New tech could fend off farm pests


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Nanotechnology could offer producers the chance to target specific pests in their fields with less dependence on pesticides, says a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

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Nanotechnology could offer producers the chance to target specific pests in their fields with less dependence on pesticides, says a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Justin Pahara and his team of scientists at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre in Alberta have been working with nanotechnology by manipulating tiny particles called nanoparticles that bind to agricultural pests without harming beneficial plants and insects.

When most people think about nanotechnology, their minds are automatically drawn to health care, such as the use of nanomaterials for diagnosis, therapy, control and disease prevention. Surprisingly, the same technology that is used in cellular imaging and CT scans can also be used to improve the agriculture sector, Pahara said.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist Justin Pahara (centre) with Armen Tchobanian (left) and Damin Kim (right). Kim displays newly hatched cutworms for experimentation with nanoparticles. (Submitted)

“I see this research as a great opportunity to start bringing advanced tech into agriculture. That’s not to say there isn’t, but it’s about bringing this sort of technology to the agriculture sector,” said Pahara, who grew up on a farm in southern Alberta.

The particles that Pahara works with are 1,000 times smaller than the width of a tattoo needle. These microscopic nanoparticles are bound with active ingredients that affect a specific plant or insect and can be customized to produce a variety of desired outcomes.

The nanoparticles are applied the same way as traditional pesticides, and work in much the same way, Pahara said. The difference between chemicals and the nanotechnology he and his team are working on is in how targeted the latter is.

“When you think about present day pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, they are little, small chemicals that broadly impact different types of organisms. For example, common insecticides basically impact the nervous system of insects, but because nervous systems are very broad across many different organisms, including ourselves, it can impact a lot of different organisms.”

Most pesticides in use today have been discovered to impact general systems within the environment. A study from Yale University says some insecticides affect insects outside their targeted range of action. Specifically, the neonicotinoid class of insecticides affect bees and beetles. A decline in these insects is linked to lower soy production yields, the study says.

“So often in the news, we hear about pollinators like bees and butterflies being impacted by pesticides and insecticides,” Pahara said.

The National Library of Medicine in the United States says beekeepers in North America continually suffer high annual colony losses due to environmental stressors such as exposure to various pesticides including noeniciotinoids

In Canada, three main neonicotinoids are approved for use: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which are used on multiple crops, from corn and soybeans to vegetables such as potatoes and herbs. They are applied to seeds soil or plants and can also be used to control insects in home and fleas on pets, as well as to protect trees from invasive insects, Health Canada says.

Nanotechnology can lead to products that are much more targeted than traditional pesticides, so producers can get better protection while spraying less, the scientist said.

Pahara and his research team began working with nanotechnology three years ago, and it’s still in its early stages.

“I expect it to go on for a long time.”

If all goes well, the researchers will have their first market applicable system by 2030, but that will depend on the process of regulating the technology.

“Hopefully before the end of the decade, we can have some real stuff in the hands of producers. That’s the general timeline.”

To meet that deadline, Pahara and his team — made up of two full-time research assistants and students from various Canadian universities during the summer months — are working hard. Pahara is also working with the University of Toronto to test the technology on plants.

“Our primary interest is insects, but now we’re starting to work on plants. Our research here is increasing to multiple labs, but government as well as in academia,” he said.

Despite being in the early period of his research, Pahara said it is starting to make waves in the industry, including seed companies.

“We can start to investigate whether this technology can be incorporated not only as a classic spray that’s used by producers but also in seeds,” he said. “Hopefully we can start working on that in the next year or two.”

And while nanotechnology can sound futuristic and conjure up images of computers and robots, it’s really all about making sure Canadian producers remain global leaders in growing healthy, nutritious food. Pahara is confident producers and the agriculture industry will quickly catch on to the benefits of nanotechnology as his team’s research continues.

“I hope the technology will speak for itself,” he said.

Pahara also believes as more and more producers are becoming concerned about the environment, they’ll shift away from using traditional pesticides. Currently, 69 per cent of Canadian crop farmers apply herbicides, 23 per cent use fungicides and 15 per cent use insecticides, Statistics Canada says.

Health Canada recommends reducing or eliminating any unnecessary exposure to pesticides and recommends integrated pest management practices such as combining biological, physical and chemical tools to manage pests. Biological practices include conserving existing natural enemies to pests and introducing new natural enemies to establish a permanent population. Physical management practices include tillage, fire and grazing.

Pahara doubts producers will be able to use pesticides forever as the world becomes more climate conscious and said turning to nanotechnology is a great alternative.

“That’s why at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, we really are trying to help make sure that producers have the tools they need,” he said.

Pahara is hoping to hear from producers in Westman who would like to learn more about nanotechnology or who would like to share with him how it could help their operations. To contact him, email


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