Brown planthoppers are one of a rice farmer's worst fears. Considered a major scourge in rice-producing countries, planthoppers cause considerable damage by sucking sap from rice plants, causing them to wilt and die. They also transmit three viral diseases that stunt rice plants and prevent grain formation. The obvious solution of the past few decades has been to rely on pesticides but beneficial insects that prey on planthoppers are killed inadvertently when insecticides are misused or are used indiscriminately.
The obvious science answer is to precisely engineer rice that is resistant to those pests, necessitating fewer pesticides, but anti-science environmental corporations lobby against that - which isn't much help to farmers trying to feed people. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has called for a ban on certain insecticides in rice production to reduce planthopper damage to rice crops in Asia which could spur acceptance of a science solution.
"We need to seriously rethink our current pest management strategies so we don't just cope with current outbreaks, but prevent and manage them effectively in the long run," says Dr. Bas Bouman, head of the Crop and Environmental Sciences Division at IRRI and leader of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) program on sustainable production systems.
Fewer pesticides, without the activist result of making food a commodity only the rich can afford, has benefits on multiple levels. "Planthopper outbreaks occur when there is a breakdown in 'ecological resilience' of a rice farm," explains Dr. K.L. Heong, an insect ecologist at IRRI. "Beneficial predators such as spiders and bugs that feed on planthoppers are part of a natural system of 'checks and balances' that keeps planthopper populations below outbreak levels. When this natural balance is disrupted, however, planthopper outbreaks occur."
The Action plan recommends two major principles – to enhance biodiversity and to regulate the marketing and use of insecticides, including the banning of certain insecticides. Three months ago, Thailand banned the use of two insecticides (abamectin and cypermethrin) and the Vietnamese province of An Giang started adopting ecological engineering practices such as growing flowers in nearby paddies to nurture planthopper predators.
Protecting rice crops is vital for Viet Nam. The country, still Communist in the sense that they only allow one party and are highly centralized, have embraced enough capitalism in the last 26 years to go from being a struggling rice importer to becoming a strong rice exporter.
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