Mike Bartolo, recipient of this year’s Innovations in Conservation award from the Palmer Trust, covers such a broad scope of agricultural knowledge that it’s difficult to narrow the field to an area to study with him. Lately there has been a lot of controversy about the use of insecticides and genetic modification, so these are the subjects he discussed Tuesday morning. Also, the crops got hammered with the latest hailstorms, rendering them unsuitable for photography in his eyes.
The measurement for insects is a Growing Degree Unit. With the cold nights during this cool spring, the insect population came on at a later time, said Bartolo. Of course the same units apply to the field crops. The corn was late, too. This has been a challenging year for produce, but a good year for pastures, because we have had rain.
“In the last 30 years,” said Bartolo, “we have started changing our philosophy on pesticides.”
After World War II, there was rapid development in industry and in agriculture. In time, the stress will develop more and more. The population is growing rapidly and there is the same amount of arable land from which we must produce more and more food.
Using the same pesticides over and over decreases their effectiveness. Insects which have natural immunity become dominant because they don’t die off.
“I love a line from ‘Jurassic Park’ in which one of the characters says what amounts to ‘nature will always overcome.’ Nature can always restart with a reset. The dinosaurs were having a good time until that comet hit. Then nature hit the reset button. Let’s hope we don’t hit the ‘reset’ button accidentally,” said Bartolo.
The new trend in pesticides is an integrated approach. We are now aware of interactions and understanding growth habits.
The first principle of the new philosophy is learning the level we can tolerate. How many insects can we stand on our crops without overwhelming loss?
The second is understanding how pests interact and have competitors. There are good insects and bad insects out there from the human point of view. We can’t afford to kill off all of them together. Many insects, not just bees, act as pollinators for plants.
The third is that we are using a different, softer, kind of chemistry. We need to pay attention to the specific kind of damage we are seeing. If the plant is being chewed, we need to address what the insects are chewing on.
The fourth and most promising method for control of plant protection and development is that now we can understand the genetic composition of plants.
“It used to take a lot of effort to isolate the plant’s genome, but now it can be done easily overnight," Bartolo said. "We can just mail in a sample and get the result the next day. When we isolate and understand the genomes that make a plant pest resistant, we can breed to increase the occurrence of that genome. It is a boon in reducing the amount of pesticides needed.
“In the future, we may be able to take the pest resistance from one plant to another,” he continued. “There is resistance to using genetic modification in plants that humans consume. What we are doing now is incorporating resistance by cross breeding. We have done this for thousands of years. The advantage now is that we can find the sequence and understand the code that makes up the resistance, and perhaps inject the resistance into another species. The key is rapidly screening the plants and improving the plant through selective breeding.
“The predicted maximum population of the earth is nine or ten billion. Over the next 30 years, we must figure out how to produce enough food out of the same amount of arable land. With understanding of genetics, adjustment to climate change, and good stewardship, we will have a chance to feed an extra two or three billion without mass starvation.
“We want to protect the environment and also grow good crops.”
Bartolo ended the conversation with a tour of the new classroom and office building which will be dedicated on Sept. 25 at the new campus of Colorado State University in Otero County. He is pleased that the architects of the new building managed to save the roof supports of the old barn, to remind everyone of the evolution of the building from barn to campus structure. He did not want pictures of the corn, which although tall had leaves shredded by hail.
“These things happen,” he said, expressing the endurance of many generations of farmers before him and into the future.