ASEAN FAW Action Plan project associate, Randolph Candano, interviews Melissa Montecalvo to find out more about her work on biological control of plant pests and diseases.
Melissa works at the National Crop Protection Center (NCPC) in the Philippines where she implements research and development initiatives on fungal disease management, biological control of insect pests and diseases, and postharvest pathology. She is also involved in the NCPC Plant Health Clinic, which provides plant disease diagnosis to various stakeholders. Melissa is also active in promoting research findings in scientific conferences and in providing training and extension services on disease identification and management.
What are you currently doing at NCPC? What work are you and your organization currently undertaking related to FAW?
My current research is focused on the biological control of insect pests and diseases. Specifically, my team identifies beneficial microorganisms such as bacterial and fungal isolates that can work against fungal pathogens. We also study the potential use of entomopathogenic fungi against the brown planthopper that is a serious pest that infests rice. I also collaborate with scientist Marcela M. Navasero in conducting bioefficacy testing, mass production, and formulation of entomopathogenic fungi against three armyworm species, namely the fall armyworm (FAW), onion armyworm, and true armyworm.
The NCPC is also proactive in the detection of FAW and is closely coordinating and providing technical assistance to farmers, government agencies, and private institutions. We are also part of the FAO FAW Global Action Program and the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) FAW Research and Extension Committee. NCPC also develops crop protection strategies by conducting research on microbials, natural enemies, pheromones, and insecticide management. Some of these initiatives are being implemented with the Institute of Weed Science, Entomology, and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture and Food Science at UPLB.
What are the role(s) of entomopathogenic fungi in integrated pest management?
Entomopathogenic fungi are biological control agents that can be used in combination with other pest management strategies. They are beneficial microorganisms that cause lethal infection to insect pests resulting in prevention of population build-up and reduction in crop damage. Mycosis in insects occur as fungal inoculum attach and enter the external integument. Enzymes and secondary metabolites are produced in the infection process. Research has also reported that entomopathogenic fungi can improve plant growth.
How do you think entomopathogenic fungi can be used in managing fall armyworm in the country? Entomopathogenic fungi can be used in managing FAW in the Philippines just like in any other corn producing regions. To increase its utilization, these should be mass produced, further developed as a stable product, and be readily available to farmers. These biological control agents can be significant components in IPM for FAW.
Our findings indicate that entomopathogenic fungi can affect the different life stages of FAW under laboratory conditions. Other studies also suggest significant potential due to their ability to survive in the soil and live endophytically in corn plants. However, application of entomopathogenic fungi is not a silver bullet to manage FAW. A comprehensive approach following integrated pest management (IPM) still has to be implemented to mitigate the pest more effectively and reduce potential yield loss.
Do you think entomopathogenic fungi can help farmers to better control FAW and other pests?
Yes. These biological control agents can be used to minimize the potential damage of fall armyworm and other pests. They can be recommended to farmers along with other crop protection strategies, however, we must ensure their availability and viability so that farmers have access to such control solutions.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using entomopathogenic fungi in IPM?
The use of entomopathogenic fungi is an eco-friendly approach in pest management due to their host specificity and limited-to-no effect on non-target organisms. Issues like resistance and residue problems encountered with the use of chemical insecticides are also not an issue. Likewise, they can be mass produced using low-cost substrates. However, it is challenging to produce high yields of infective propagules with long shelf life.
It is also compatible with other IPM strategies and can lower chemical application. Timing of application, however, is very important since it requires few days for entomopathogenic fungi to kill the insects - unlike chemical insecticides which are fast-acting. Hence, preventive application is necessary to prevent population build-up. The infectivity of entomopathogenic fungi is also dependent on favourable environmental conditions for disease infection, hence, their efficacy may be low when crop production coincides with the dry season.
What is difficult about FAW control?
FAW is a transboundary pest and is difficult to control because it is a migratory and polyphagous pest. FAW life stages have different susceptibility to control measures. Aside from these, when larvae move inside the whorl, making them less exposed to insecticides and biological control agents, they are difficult to control. Late application of control measure may also contribute to failure of control, thus, early detection is very important to effectively mitigate this insect pest.
What do you think would help farmers more to control FAW and other plant pests and diseases?
It is necessary to build the capability of farmers on how to diagnose a pest problem and choose appropriate crop protection solutions. Correct and timely pest and disease identification is vital for effective pest management. Implementing IPM is the most sustainable way to manage FAW and other plant pests and diseases and involves cultural and biological strategies, and judicious use of chemicals to ensure production of safe and quality produce. Crop protection specialists, on the other hand, should continuously improve IPM strategies and help roll out these technologies to farmers.
Is COVID making it more difficult for implementing IPM?
Implementing IPM became challenging in COVID-times mainly due to restricted mobility and quarantine measures. Pest surveillance and availability of agricultural resources are also affected. I think that we are fortunate to have crop protection staff and proactive farmers based in the regions that play a vital role in pest diagnosis and management. Due to this pandemic, social media has become very useful as our platform to raise awareness on pests and to disseminate the IPM technologies - allowing wider reach and more stakeholders to be engaged.