Pest Genomics: Protecting Canada's Agriculture Industry

Farmer spraying field with pesticides

Most insect herbivores can only consume a narrow range of plants; spider mites can feed on over 1,000 species." - Vojislava Grbic

Agriculture has defined Canada’s economy and large parts of its culture for centuries, predating the arrival of European settlers and forming a significant part of our present and future national interests. From P.E.I. potatoes and Niagara’s vineyards to the seemingly endless wheat fields of the prairies and bountiful orchards of the Okanagan Valley, Canada’s very identity is shaped by our harvests feeding billions of people around the world. While an ancient practice, farming has faced technological advancement and biological innovation more reminiscent of a state-of-the-art laboratory than Monet’s bucolic sceneries. Rapidly increasing population, changing consumer demands, and growing concerns of sustainability have all contributed to a rapidly evolving agricultural landscape.

Few areas of agriculture have faced such a combination of innovation and sociopolitical concern as the use of pesticides. Maximizing crop yields while minimizing the cost burden to farmers and risks to human and environmental health is the central issue of pesticide application. Canadian farmers are at the mercy of myriad factors but perhaps none so universally devastating as the spider mite, an insect pest that attacks over 150 agricultural and greenhouse-grown crops, including corn, soybeans, tomatoes, and cannabis. Although mainly controlled with the application of pesticides, spider mites are already resistant to all classes of pesticides currently used, which makes controlling them almost impossible.

Globally, nearly $1.5 billion are spent on mite-specific pesticides; insects are responsible for up to 25% of crop losses, totalling $470 billion annually. In Canada, losses from the vegetable industry alone total nearly half a billion dollars.

Vojislava Grbic from the Biology Department at Western University and her husband, Miodrag, lead a research group that has single-handedly turned a non-existent area of study into a world-leading field. In 2009 they made a major breakthrough by sequencing the entire spider mite genome, allowing them to focus, at the genetic level, on exactly how these mites are capable of being such an elusive pest. This foundation is what allows them to currently work on pesticide and transgenic crop solutions to target specific genes in the spider mite, reducing crop losses while being completely safe for humans. Collaborating with Canadian farmers, growers’ associations, and the Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Grbic research group has engaged a variety stakeholders in Canadian agriculture to develop solutions while taking into account the diverse requirements of the entire growing process, literally from farm to table.

Spider mites are resistant to all classes of pesticides currently used on them and can develop resistance to new pesticides in 2-4 years.

Results

The direct results of the research from the Grbic lab will save Canadian farmers millions of dollars in lost productivity while simultaneously reducing the cost necessary to control pests. Additionally, their crop solutions increase predictability and security of food production, ensuring livelihoods for farmers. For consumers, this equates to a lower cost of food with substantially lowered exposure to chemical pesticides; in fact,75% of active chemical  

ingredients will be phased out of pesticide use in North America and Europe over the coming years. By sharing the spider mite genome sequence with researchers around the world, the Grbics have created a community of scientists focusing on various aspects of pesticide resistance which have promising results for the future of agriculture.