Pesticides based on fungi are just one example of biopesticides, a group that also includes bacteria and biochemicals derived from plants.
Biopesticides are a tiny segment of the market for now – but their use is projected to grow at a faster rate than traditional synthetic pesticides over the next few years.
The growth of the organic produce industry is one factor giving biopesticides a boost. So, too, are regulatory hurdles, says Sara Olson, a senior analyst at Lux Research.
"As it gets harder to get approval for novel synthetics and existing synthetic pesticides are pulled from shelves, biopesticides become more attractive," Olson says.
And then there's the rise of weeds and microbes resistant to traditional pesticides. "Many commonly used chemical pesticides are facing pressure today due to overuse, improper use, and long-term use," she says.
Some biopesticides repel pests, while others disrupt mating or cause a specific disease to strike invaders that would nibble on delicate fruits and vegetables.
Fungal-based biopesticides take things up a notch. Many of these products contain parasitic fungi – the kind that grow inside an insect's body and feed on its internal tissue until it dies (and sometimes beyond that).
While this might sound horrific, for some the benefits of using fungal-based biopesticides, rather than traditional chemicals, may outweigh the brutality.
Nemat Keyhani, a professor at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says fungus is compatible with organic farming, harmless to vertebrates — like humans, birds, dogs and cattle — and has a low environmental impact.
That's especially true when compared with synthetic pesticides, which often contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic, chlorine, ammonia and formaldehyde. Some synthetic pesticides have been shown to have harmful effects on the environment and human health. One family of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, is being blamed for the decline in bee populations over the last decade.
Fungi, on the other hand, are alive, and they could evolve along with the insects that they're being used to control. That means pesticide resistance may become less of an issue, says Olson.
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