Ecology research: where agriculture and environment meet

At Charles Sturt, we believe in making a difference, addressing challenges, finding solutions, helping people and creating impact. It’s why we’re Australia’s first certified carbon neutral university. Nowhere is making a difference more important than in food security. We need to produce enough food to meet the needs of the expanding human population. But, crucially, we need to do it sustainably, in a way that protects natural ecosystems and enhances biodiversity. This is the place where agriculture and environment science meets. And it’s where Charles Sturt is leading the way in ecology research.

The Charles Sturt University Novel Pest Management Program is directly contributing to the goal of boosting agricultural production while educing the use of non-renewable and sometimes environmentally damaging chemicals – in Australia and across the world, from the Riverina to the agricultural heartlands of China, Thailand and Vietnam.

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Ecology research: pest management in agriculture

The program of work is led by Professor Geoff Gurr. In 2020 he was named by The Australian as the country’s leading researcher in the field of insects and arthropods. The program is investigating ecological means to reduce crop losses and the need for plant health treatment based on natural products like plant extracts.

“The overall aim of the research in my group is to use ecological expertise and tricks to try and control pests more effectively in a range of different settings. This can minimise the need for pesticide use and all of the well-known hazards associated with pesticides. When we harness these ecosystem services it reduces the need for costly and hazardous inputs like pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

“Essentially, we can use agroecology to amplify the strength of what ecologists call ecosystem services (aka nature’s contribution to humanity). These are based on processes like beneficial bugs eating pests and also microbes breaking down organic matter to release plant nutrients.”

The program also won the 2020 prestigious Engagement Australia Excellence Award for Outstanding Engagement for Research Impact. The award recognises the impact of the innovative research. Plus, acknowledging the community collaboration and industry engagement it takes to ensure implementation.

How ecological pest management works

Just one example within a project that has a very wide scope – from food crops to cotton and, increasingly, viticulture – is planting nectar-producing plants along the edges of rice fields. This attracts native beneficial insects like wasps that, in turn, control pest insects and reduce the need for pesticide spraying.

“The knack of enhancing biological control in crop systems is essentially a very simple technique that even our grandfathers would have recognised – companion planting. So rather than having a bare earth bank around a rice field, we can have those banks covered in a secondary crop.

“Those secondary crops can perform a really important function. They provide nectar, which is flight fuel, if you like, for beneficial insects. After a feed of nectar, tiny wasps can then forage in the adjacent rice field and parasitise the pests that potentially could build up to high numbers.”

Getting results with ecology research

“Using this approach, we’ve had a number of benefits. The flowers growing around the rice fields attract lots of beneficial insects and give them shelter. When the insects feed, they live longer, they produce more eggs and they attack more pests. Consequently, the pest densities are lowered quite dramatically in the rice fields.

“And the farmers love it. On their own initiative they are reducing pesticide spray intensity to less than one third of conventional practice. So, firstly, they are saving money and spraying less; and secondly, they are also getting higher yields.

“In China, these tactics are now part of national agriculture policy. In fact, they have helped Chinese rice farmers control pests so effectively that they have:

reduced insecticide use by two thirds
increased gain yield by five per cent
increased profits by 7.5 per cent

“Above all, our ecology research has shown that native vegetation planted or retained near crops can enhance the activity of beneficial insects. This helps to control pests and reduces reliance on chemical control methods.”

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