Acres U.S.A. is North America’s monthly magazine of ecological agriculture. Each month we conduct an in-depth interview with a thought leader. The following interview appeared in our February 2016 issue and was too important not to share widely.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren is an agroecologist, director of the Ecdysis Foundation and CEO of Blue Dasher Farm in Brookings, South Dakota. He received his Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Illinois in 2004 and was a top scientist with USDA-ARS for 11 years. Lundgren received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering awarded by the White House and has served as an advisor for national grant panels and regulatory agencies on pesticide and GM crop risk assessments. Lundgren has written 107 peer-reviewed journal articles, authored the book Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-prey Foods and has received more than $3.4 million in grants. Dr. Lundgren has trained five post-docs and 12 graduate students from around the world. One of his priorities is to make science applicable to end-users, and he regularly interacts with the public and farmers regarding pest and farm management and insect biology. Lundgren’s research program focuses on assessing the ecological risk of pest management strategies and developing long-term solutions for sustainable food systems. His ecological research focuses heavily on conserving healthy biological communities within agroecosystems by reducing disturbance and increasing biodiversity within cropland.
Interviewed by Tracy Frisch
Editor’s Note: After 11 years as a highly respected research entomologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, on October 28, 2015, Dr. Lundgren filed a formal “whistleblower” complaint with his employer, charging that he had been subjected to “an official campaign of harassment, hindrance, and retaliation.” In August USDA had imposed a 14-day suspension without pay on him as punishment for two alleged infractions: 1) Publishing a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal on the adverse effects of a neonicotinoid insecticide on monarch butterflies, a topic USDA deemed “sensitive,” and 2) Travel paperwork irregularity when he appeared before a panel of the National Academy of Science. Could it be that Lundgren was not afraid to ask inconvenient questions about technologies that are highly profitable (such as neonicotinoids) or promising (such as RNAi) that raised the ire of the agency?
ACRES U.S.A. One of the core conclusions of your research is that pesticides, by reducing the diversity of insect life, lead to more pest problems, not less. How did you conduct this research, and what evidence did you marshal in making this argument?
JONATHAN LUNDGREN. We’ve been giving recommendations for a long time as far as what pests in cornfields needed to be managed and how they should be managed and when you should apply pesticides and things like that. I went through the literature for my state specifically, South Dakota, to see where these pests are that we’re trying to control. I realized there had never been a survey of when and where pests were occurring within the state. How can we give recommendations if we don’t know this? Step one was going out to 53 different cornfields that spanned a lot of different production practices. We had everything from organic to very conventional. But none were Bt corn, which means they weren’t genetically modified to express the Bt toxin, a pesticide that specifically targets corn rootworms and European corn borers. They also were supposed to not be treated with any insecticides, especially neonicotinoid seed treatments that are quite pervasive. But, as we found out, a lot of farmers on these 53 farms didn’t know that they were applying insecticidal seed treatments until after the fact, so we ended up having to broaden our study to include fields that had a low rate of neonicotinoid. We hoped that this pesticide would largely be out of the plant by the time we sampled — around anthesis — when corn pollen is shed.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s been my hunch, too, that farmers do not know that they are using insecticidal seed treatments.
LUNDGREN. Earlier on, when we were running a prolonged research experiment on the farm, we realized that over time our corn rootworms were gone from the experiment. I was like, what is going on? It turned out that they had slipped in a seed treatment without us knowing about it. That really hampered a number of years’ worth of data, but farmers are in the same boat, right? That’s one of the reasons I got interested in studying the effects of neonicotinoids. We wanted to know where the pests were, so we looked at the economically important pests within corn production systems here in South Dakota. But, I’m of the mind that we’re simplifying things too much if we just focus on the pests and ignore all of the other insects in that community. Those other insects influence when and where the pests are occurring, either through competition or potentially through predation if they’re eating the pests. If we’re ignoring all of those other critters, it’s to our detriment, so we looked at the entire insect community living on the plants themselves. That really set this study apart. There had never been a bio-inventory of the corn system, in spite of people studying it for generations. No one had ever tried to figure out all the critters living in there. And frankly, corn represents 5 percent of the terrestrial land surface of our country. We had 53 different field sites where we characterized entire communities. We identified literally tens of thousands of specimens to the species level. It’s a ton of work. It’s understandable why people wouldn’t want to do this because it is a monumental task. The data was second to none. That gave us a great resource for trying to understand these questions.
ACRES U.S.A. You could use this for an entire career and never have to do any more fieldwork.
LUNDGREN. Right. We are tapping into it on a number of different aspects. We are using this and other data to predict risks of pest and farm management practices, and we are looking at how these insect communities behave in healthy soils versus degraded soils. Suddenly we had this big old pile of insects. You have so many different species out there, and if you’re trying to analyze individual interactions between two species at a time, it quickly becomes overwhelming. We took a step back and thought about what kinds of tools we could use to try to better understand these community interactions. Traditionally, ecologists have used very simple matrices of diversity, like Simpson’s Index, Shannon Weaver index and other pretty basic measures like species abundance and total insect abundance, but they have never really looked at this fauna within a replicated habitat across a broad region like we did. So this was a good opportunity. So often we make inferences about the importance of species diversity from a very small-scale experiment, like something we can manipulate in a cage — maybe we consider three or four species interactions a community. That’s all well and good, but when there are 100 different species in a habitat, it’s much more complex.
ACRES U.S.A. Your conclusion seems really bold because it calls into question one of the primary ways that we’re still managing pests in agriculture. How are agricultural scientists and farmers responding to this study and your conclusions?
LUNDGREN. The article has gotten a lot of social media attention. I think it’s ranked in the top 5 percent of all articles that have been published, but as far as impact, it’s still fairly early on. Certainly there is a lot of interest from farmers that want to farm more holistically or ecologically. A lot of these guys, when I was telling them about this, they’re like, ‘we already knew that.’ Now we’re bringing the science to catch up with them. More often than not, the farmers are leading the science, aren’t they?
ACRES U.S.A. I was very surprised that no one had ever studied the predators of the corn rootworm, even though it has been a major pest for 100 years.
LUNDGREN. Isn’t that something?
ACRES U.S.A. Is that typical of what you might find with really important pests in other crops?
LUNDGREN. I think it’s true, but it’s particularly true for the corn rootworm because it has a subterranean life phase. I think that corn rootworms were originally just a little beetle that was eating all kinds of native grasses, we believe, in the Rocky Mountain area. One theory is that, as irrigation took hold in some of the lower Plains states, like Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, it permitted a corn bridge to occur, and the corn rootworm was able to leap over and affect the rest of the Corn Belt, but I have another theory. We discovered, for the first time, that corn rootworms actually have a hemolymph defense against predators.
ACRES U.S.A. So it’s harder to study?
LUNDGREN. That really challenges ecologists studying it, but at the same time it makes it so much more interesting. Like so many things in life, not just in entomology, you go down a road, and you stay on that road. Early on, the management of the corn rootworm went down an insecticide-based road. There was a very pest-centric viewpoint on the corn rootworm. It almost existed in a vacuum. It took somebody coming in with a different perspective to try to break open some other opportunities that we could explore here.
ACRES U.S.A. What can you tell us about the farming practices and the context in which the corn rootworm emerged as a major pest? I am interested in the history.
LUNDGREN. I think that corn rootworms were originally just a little beetle that was eating all kinds of native grasses, we believe, in the Rocky Mountain area. One theory is that, as irrigation took hold in some of the lower Plains states, like Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, it permitted a corn bridge to occur, and the corn rootworm was able to leap over and affect the rest of the Corn Belt, but I have another theory. We discovered, for the first time, that corn rootworms actually have a hemolymph defense against predators. I’ve evaluated the relative strength of the defenses of a lot of different Diabrotica species, which are all corn rootworms, but the Western corn rootworm is really the star of the show. That is the pest that is a huge problem. We found that it has a stronger defense than a lot of the others. That’s not published yet — it’s sitting on my desktop right now wishing that it could be published.
ACRES U.S.A. Doesn’t it have really sticky, stinky hemolymph?
LUNDGREN. Right. What happens is that a predator comes along and takes a bite of the rootworm. Then the rootworm’s blood coagulates quickly on the predator’s mouthparts, and it starts freaking out. But it’s a repellant, too, very effective against a wide swath of the predator community, especially chewing insects. Spiders and certain ants are able to overcome it after a certain amount of time. Nevertheless it works well against a lot of different predators.
ACRES U.S.A. Because no one wanted to eat it.
ACRES U.S.A. What materials and methods have farmers used to fight it in the past?
LUNDGREN. Corn rootworms may or not have been a prime motivation, but they were certainly one of the factors that helped to drive crop rotation. Back in the 1970s when farmers started to rotate corn and soybeans together, they found that the corn rootworm stopped being an issue. Crop rotation beat the pest cycle because the corn rootworm lays its eggs at the base of corn plants where it would hatch the following spring. Corn is the only host that it really does well on. When you stick soybeans into the rotation, the larvae hatch out of their eggs in the spring and look around for corn roots — instead they only find soybeans, and they die. It was very effective. Farmers also tried soil insecticides, but they never really worked that well. They used tillage quite a bit to try to kill the corn rootworms. Now of course there’s Bt technology and neonicotinoid seed treatments and RNAi technology for GE crops and as an insecticide, all being promoted.
ACRES U.S.A. What is the current status of the insect?
LUNDGREN. In spite of hundreds of millions of dollars in research, corn rootworms are still a pest, because we’re slapping a band-aid on the symptom. We’re ignoring the problem that our systems are not very resilient to corn rootworms. Let’s take a step back and solve that problem rather than inventing more band-aids for the symptoms of the corn rootworm.
ACRES U.S.A. I skipped my first question, which was, “If insects are a symptom, what is the problem?”
LUNDGREN. The problem is a lack of diversity, isn’t it?
ACRES U.S.A. Yes. When you began your research, you had colleagues that told you that the corn rootworm had no predators but that didn’t discourage you from looking further.
LUNDGREN. Call me a contrarian. I didn’t believe it, and there were tools that I could use to try to unravel it. We had to develop and adapt some of those tools, like gut content analysis, where we would actually look for rootworm DNA inside the stomachs of predators that we collected out in the field. It was a very powerful tool. We identified dozens of predators that had eaten corn rootworms and very frequently so.
ACRES U.S.A. Was it in the lab where you first noticed this hemolymph problem?
LUNDGREN. Yeah. We spent thousands of taxpayer dollars trying to develop this tool for detecting corn rootworms in the predators’ stomachs. Then I decided to do a proof of concept by force-feeding rootworms to a couple of predators I collected. I realized, oh, my gosh, they’re not eating these things very well. Luckily, I wasn’t entirely right. Although this predator defense is certainly still important in shaping what predators eat corn rootworms, it’s not the only thing that influences predators. There is still lots of predation happening out there.
ACRES U.S.A. Besides being repulsive, what are some of the other qualities that make insects attractive or repellent to predators?
LUNDGREN. They may be really good at keeping camouflaged, or good at hiding. Some appear at certain times of the day. Corn rootworm larvae, for example, live within the corn roots. We found that when we start trying to implement different control practices like cover crops, that cover crops were really effective at controlling corn rootworms, but only for the older larvae. Corn rootworms are protected from predation inside the corn root, but the cover crops changed the root morphology of the corn plant. We theorize that this change leads the oldest corn rootworms to try to exit the corn root. When they do, the predators are there to eat them.
ACRES U.S.A. But the cover crop isn’t present when the corn is present, is it?
LUNDGREN. The cover crop residue.
ACRES U.S.A. How would that change the morphology of the corn root?
LUNDGREN. There’s a legacy of crop residue on the cash crop. That’s a pretty common thing, but we don’t entirely understand how it happens. It may occur through allelopathy, or by changing the microclimates within the soil — whether through cooling the temperature of the soil or affecting water retention or any one of a number of other things. That’s not something that has been well studied, which surprises me. We do have some data on it that I haven’t published yet.
ACRES U.S.A. You’ve mentioned the role of insects in eating weed seeds or defoliating the weeds themselves. What should be known about these contributions of insects?
LUNDGREN. They’re really economically valuable. Some entomologists have valued insect services at $63 billion a year just in the United States. That’s a lot of money, and it’s likely an underestimate.
ACRES U.S.A. Wow.
LUNDGREN. There’s a lot more biodiversity out there than people realize. People think, ‘Why conserve all these species?’ which becomes ‘Why worry about biodiversity?’ This brings us back to the corn study again. There is an inherent value in species conservation, but the study makes a case that there is a potentially great economic value as well. Biodiversity is not just great in its own right. Biodiversity also contributes to how ecosystems function. When you eliminate it from a system, you have to replace it with something. Time and time again throughout history, whenever we have tried to replace ecosystem services with technology, Mother Nature turns around and kicks us in the crotch.
ACRES U.S.A. I read that ants and beetles provide eco-services worth $1.4 billion a year, just in the U.S. soybean crop. What kinds of things are these insects doing that benefit the crop?
There’s a lot more biodiversity out there than people realize. People think, ‘Why conserve all these species?’ which becomes ‘Why worry about biodiversity?’ This brings us back to the corn study again. There is an inherent value in species conservation, but the study makes a case that there is a potentially great economic value as well. Biodiversity is not just great in its own right. Biodiversity also contributes to how ecosystems function. When you eliminate it from a system, you have to replace it with something. Time and time again throughout history, whenever we have tried to replace ecosystem services with technology, Mother Nature turns around and kicks us in the crotch.
LUNDGREN. Ants are ecosystem engineers; they’re shaping the soil and increasing water infiltration; they’re re-forming plant communities out there; they’re consuming weed seeds and consuming insect prey, especially pests. Ants are so important!
ACRES U.S.A. And beetles?
LUNDGREN. Beetles, oh man, they’re doing all kinds of things. It depends on the type of beetle. There are carabid beetles and rove beetles and soldier beetles that are great predators. A lot of times those beetles, or their larvae, are omnivores, so they are also eating a lot of weed seeds. Other beetles are defoliating weed populations out in your field. Other beetles are critical as detritivores helping to break down organic matter and make it available to the microbial community.
ACRES U.S.A. I read in your list of research projects that you are studying the effects of wormers and antibiotics on the dung community. What are the implications?
LUNDGREN. Huge. It’s just like any other prophylactic pest management, but in a different system. Those pesticides are excreted in the dung. Ranchers that use higher levels of pesticides in their animals end up having less of a dung community of insects. That dung community reduces flies, it reduces helminth (worm) parasites in the system, and it also reduces pasture fouling by the dung. When you use wormers, you end up having to replace the dung community that you just eliminated with more pesticides — it’s a treadmill. Jacob Pecenka, one of my Master’s students, is working on this project right now. That data should be coming out hopefully within the next year or two. It’s our first jump into the pool of rangeland ecology.
ACRES U.S.A. Has anyone studied the effects of fungicidal seed treatments on soil life, including insects?
LUNDGREN. Soil life, maybe; insects, not very well. I think this is a really important issue. It’s fairly well documented that certain fungicides can have a deleterious effect on things like honeybees and other pollinators. But fungi are also important. They’re doing many things out there in the environment, and insects have mutualistic relationships with fungi. Beneficial insects as well as pests and fungi are important parts of that web.
ACRES U.S.A. I am intrigued that you’ve done some research on symbiotic organisms, like the gut flora, of certain insects.
LUNDGREN. Yeah, together with Ryan Schmid, a Master’s student, I looked at bacterial communities in stomachs of carabid beetles and crickets. They’re really important for seed digestion, and their presence defines whether or not an insect will be a good granivore of things like weed seeds.
ACRES U.S.A. Do we know anything about what determines whether these gut microbes are there or not?
LUNDGREN. Well, biodiversity within the system seems to be really strongly correlated. As biodiversity within cornfields decreases, you also see a decrease within the bacterial community living within the stomachs of some of these insects. That bacterial community influences their nutritional ecology and what they eat.
ACRES U.S.A. If they can’t digest it, they’re probably not going to eat it?
LUNDGREN. Right on.
ACRES U.S.A. Don’t some insects have specialized diets that don’t provide them with all the amino acids and vitamins they need?
LUNDGREN. Most insects are like humans in that, even though they may focus on certain foods, they still require a balanced diet, just like we do. That diet comes from diversity again.
ACRES U.S.A. People don’t often realize that predator insects and mites don’t only eat other insects and mites, but they also eat pollen and other things.
LUNDGREN. Absolutely they do. I wrote a book about it. It’s called Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-Prey Foods. It talks about why predators eat pollen, nectar, fungus and seeds, and what the nutritional benefits are. It goes from physiology all the way up to pest management and its questions.
ACRES U.S.A. I think one of the most interesting things is that you and others have been able to find out the answers to these kinds of questions.
LUNDGREN. A lot of the answers are known, though not well communicated to end-users like farmers, but there are also still a lot of knowledge gaps, especially for specific systems.
ACRES U.S.A. Turning our attention back to corn, I’m wondering just how much predation is going on in conventional agro-ecosystems. Could predators there keep the Western corn rootworm population below an economic threshold?
LUNDGREN. No, because we’ve eliminated about 75 percent of the species that used to be in the native grasslands or prairies that have now been replaced by cornfields. Those native grasslands and prairies seldom had out-of-control population outbreaks of corn rootworm. That’s because there was a balance of species. So even though we have lots of predator species in our cornfields, it’s only a fraction of what used to be there.
ACRES U.S.A. But maybe the corn is just much more nutritious than the native grasses. Could that be another hypothesis?
LUNDGREN. That is another testable hypothesis, for sure. And corn certainly is a good host for corn rootworms. However, we’re finding that as these insect communities increase in diversity, those corn rootworms tend to go away. That would suggest that corn being a great host plant is not what causes the corn rootworm to become a problem. Rather, it’s more related to habitat.
ACRES U.S.A. And as you said, if you rotate, corn rootworm becomes not much of a pest, right?
LUNDGREN. Well, that used to be the case, but corn rootworms are tricky pests and they have evolved resistance to rotations. And those tend to be very simplified rotations.
ACRES U.S.A. Right. Corn, soy, corn, soy. Or corn, corn, soy.
LUNDGREN. Corn, snow, corn. That’s the rotation too often practiced.
ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the uses of insecticides and other insect-killing interventions that you don’t believe have an economic justification?
LUNDGREN. I’m not anti-pesticide. You use a pesticide when you need to. And I’m actually not even anti-genetically modified crops. But I would love to see a situation where we don’t need them because it costs farmers money. If we can design healthier ecosystems that replace pesticides and are more resilient to pests, then you have a better system all around. As for neonicotinoid seed treatments in the corn, I have not seen a lot of really strong data that would support their use. In fact, quite the opposite. What would their function be? I don’t understand what pests we’re shooting at with these. Is it corn rootworms? Bt is already out there for corn rootworms. Is it European corn borer? Again, we’ve got genetically modified crops that actually have a much lower impact on the environment than broad-spectrum neonicotinoid seed treatments. Is it wireworms? I’ve never seen a wireworm problem so I don’t know what they’re talking about there. Maybe in certain isolated cases they would be a justified expenditure. What farmers need to realize is that there is a cost associated with each of these technologies, not just economic but also in terms of the environment. Just because it’s approved and deemed ‘safe’ doesn’t mean that we understand all ends as far as what these pesticides are doing out there.
ACRES U.S.A. I haven’t gotten a satisfactory explanation about why neonicotinoid seed treatments came into widespread practice. People have said they’re associated with genetically engineered crops, like Bt crops, but that didn’t make much sense.
LUNDGREN. I have my theories about it. Bt crops changed everything. They took the world of Integrated Pest Management and in some ways put us back into the 1950s as far as prophylactic pest management. Suddenly with Bt crops, we weren’t scouting for pests anymore. It accompanied a whole new realm of investigation into systemic chemicals that could be coated on the seeds.
ACRES U.S.A. Just like Bt is a systemic in Bt corn.
LUNDGREN. Bt corn and neonicotinoids are both contained constitutively throughout the plant.
ACRES U.S.A. Let’s talk about some implications of preventative pesticide treatment, as opposed to Integrated Pest Management or IPM.
LUNDGREN. Early insecticides were used prophylactically. This approach to pest management was deemed ineffective because the pests became resistant, because it was too costly and because there were environmental consequences as well as likely human health consequences. That’s why IPM came into being. It saved farmers money, it used less chemicals, and it was a good business decision. Then suddenly we’ve reverted back to prophylactic pest management and we’re seeing consequences again. We’re seeing resistant pests; we’re seeing environmental effects of some of these widely used systemic insecticides and seed treatments. Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s the difference between Bt as a microbial insecticide and Bt genetically engineered crops?
LUNDGREN. Bt sprays are the entire pathogen. It’s a bacterium. Bt crops contain just one insecticidal gene from the bacterium, so the crop produces a crystal protein called a Cry protein. The functional unit is different for Bt crops and Bt sprays. Another thing that’s different is the duration that the pesticide is present within a particular habitat. Arguably, the Bt crop produces the Cry proteins and these toxins are present throughout the entire growing season, whereas Bt spray tends to break down rather rapidly after being sprayed. That’s an exposure consideration. I think that the case could be made from the scientific literature that Bt sprays have more direct toxicological effects against non-target insects like predators than a Bt crop does. But, I would put caveats on that conclusion in that the literature is reporting only on the questions that we ask, and we don’t always know the questions that we should be asking. Also, this does not consider the exposure. Bt sprays are applied to a fraction of a percent of a landscape whereas Bt crops are planted on about 5 to 6 percent of the terrestrial lands of the country, so the potential for exposure to Bt crops is much, much higher than it would be for Bt sprays.
ACRES U.S.A. Going back to the principle that pesticides cause greater pest pressure by diminishing insect species diversity, it could be instructive to look at the classic case of DDT.
LUNDGREN. Broad-spectrum insecticides — DDT was certainly one of those — had pretty devastating effects on insect communities. They would rebound, but they wouldn’t be the same.
ACRES U.S.A. What about the effects on organisms higher up on the food chain, also in light of losses of food resources caused by the killing off of insects?
LUNDGREN. Insects are connected to everything else. It’s interesting to think about how many strands of the web need to be removed before the whole web collapses. We’re a part of that web along with other animals and plants and fungi — it’s not just bugs. There are direct and indirect consequences of pesticide use on higher organisms such as mammals and birds.
ACRES U.S.A. You suggested a few years ago that farmers could plant Bt corn every other year or every third year. Do you still think that is a good option?
LUNDGREN. Pests have been driven to very low densities throughout much of the corn production area of the country by the use of Bt corn. It’s been very effective. Now we’re trying to compare traits-based management like Bt crops and neonicotinoid seed treatments to managing for healthy soils with cover crops and no-till in terms of their effects on insect pest pressure in cornfields throughout four states. This is my Master’s student Clair Bestul’s work. We’re only finding pests at substantial numbers in the insecticide-treated fields! The farmers that are abandoning their insecticide use and replacing it with biodiversity and reduced disturbance are reaping the benefits of not having to use insecticides on their fields. We’re going to look at the economics of those systems as well, considering yields and input costs from all of those different fields. We’re looking forward to finding out not only which is better at suppressing insects and increasing diversity, but also what is more profitable.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s terrific. Let’s talk about some of the practices that increase biodiversity.
LUNDGREN. Step one is to stop tilling, or reduce your tillage at the very least.
ACRES U.S.A. But haven’t most low-till and no-till cropping systems been relying on herbicides? We already have the problem of herbicide-resistant superweeds.
LUNDGREN. So what’s the trade-off? This is the question in my mind and my students’ minds, and I have talked about this at length. Is it better to use herbicides every once in a while to control weeds, or is it better to till instead? I guess it’s a personal preference. I understand that herbicides are potentially damaging not only to plant biology but also to other species, but I would rather have to apply an herbicide judiciously than disturb that soil, knowing the prolonged damage that tillage does to the biology of the soil. To me, that is your front line of defense, and without it you’ve got nothing else.
ACRES U.S.A. I think some people have found the best of both worlds, moving away from both.
LUNDGREN. Yes, because as these no-till systems evolve over time, they find that they have to rely less and less on chemical inputs.
ACRES U.S.A. As long as they’re creating some complexity with rotations and things like that?
ACRES U.S.A. You acknowledge that herbicides have effects on organisms besides plants. What about on insects?
LUNDGREN. My student Laurene Freydier and I have data that shows that 2,4-D formulation at one-eighth the label rate kills lady beetles. Just because it’s marketed to kill plants doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt the environment, and sometimes it’s the inert ingredients that are more toxic than the active ingredients.
ACRES U.S.A. You told me how crop rotation used to overcome corn rootworm. What are some of the other benefits of crop rotation?
LUNDGREN. Plants change the soils both physically and chemically, and different plants leave a different legacy in the soil as far as root structure, organic matter and micronutrients — they call it the rotation effect. Oftentimes the longer the rotation and the more diverse the rotation, the more benefits. Plants evolved within very complex systems, not in a monoculture. In complex communities plants synergize with one another. They also antagonize one another, and plants also foster more diverse insect communities that can then serve as resistance to pests. So let’s figure out what those synergies are. As scientists and farmers this is going to be a really important hurdle in the near future.
ACRES U.S.A. Aren’t you also championing buffer strips for boosting beneficial insect populations?
LUNDGREN. I just want habitat out there. Perennial, undisturbed habitat is needed on farms. If we can foster more diversity within those marginal habitats, then it sure makes a lot of sense from both an ecological and an economic perspective.
ACRES U.S.A. Are there particular plants and systems you’ve been working on?
LUNDGREN. We’ve been working on quite a few systems. While I don’t have great recommendations, I think I have the recommendation that’s going to be true at the end of the day. That is that more diversity is better than less diversity, but some diversity is better than no diversity. We’re working on a bunch of different oilseed crops like borage, cuphea and spring canola that could be grown for new markets. They flower at different times of the year and provide habitat for pollinators and natural enemies. Hopefully they would spill over to your adjacent cropland.
ACRES U.S.A. Did I skip any of the main cultural practices?
LUNDGREN. Don’t leave bare soil.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s a great one, but then there are a number of ways to do that.
LUNDGREN. Right. Cover cropping makes a lot of sense. Intercropping would be great if we can figure out how to do it without sacrificing cash-crop yield, and I think we can.
ACRES U.S.A. You’re in a drier area than out east where I live.
LUNDGREN. I think a green bridge is going to be really important, too. There’s a lot of talk against the green bridge from cover crop to the cash crop, but I think we have to close that in because if there’s bare soil, then you’re chasing out the life.
ACRES U.S.A. Is the talk against the green bridge due to the fear that it will create more insect pressure?
LUNDGREN. Exactly. Insect pressure is one of the things that people are concerned about. A lot of times I think that that insect pressure is related to a lack of diversity in the cover mix.
ACRES U.S.A. Are you a proponent of diverse mixtures of different cover crops?
LUNDGREN. Definitely. Cocktails are the way to go. A lot of that is anecdotal though. We’re trying to get the data. That will be the next set of experiments that we’re starting to run.
ACRES U.S.A. So you’ll do cover crop cocktails and then look at insect communities that result?
LUNDGREN. Yeah, and also look for pest populations that might build that up. In terms of working with farmers and observing what they’re doing, the guys that have more diverse mixes really don’t have a lot to fear from pests.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s exciting. I’m curious about how much interaction you have with farmers and some of the ideas and insights you’ve gotten from them.
LUNDGREN. Farmers are entirely shaping my research. I understand the ecological basis, but until farmers showed me that practices like cover cropping could be done, I believed that they wouldn’t work in a lot of areas. There wasn’t a lot of strong scientific evidence for it. That was back in the earlier days. Now I’ve gone out to farmers who are making it happen. When I said earlier that the farmers are leading the research, I mean that they’ve changed how I approach a pest management question and the research questions that I’m asking. That’s because I’ve seen these guys abandoning their insecticide use and growing the soil as well as crops at the same time. That’s powerful!
ACRES U.S.A. It’s an exciting time. Who are some of the farmers that inspire you?
LUNDGREN. Dan Forgey and Dwayne Beck, and Gabe Brown and Dave Brandt and Gail Fuller, Darren Williams and Kelly Griffith and Scott Gonnerman.
Farmers are entirely shaping my research. I understand the ecological basis, but until farmers showed me that practices like cover cropping could be done, I believed that they wouldn’t work in a lot of areas. There wasn’t a lot of strong scientific evidence for it. That was back in the earlier days. Now I’ve gone out to farmers who are making it happen. When I said earlier that the farmers are leading the research, I mean that they’ve changed how I approach a pest management question and the research questions that I’m asking. That’s because I’ve seen these guys abandoning their insecticide use and growing the soil as well as crops at the same time. That’s powerful!
ACRES U.S.A. How far away are you from those folks?
LUNDGREN. They’re within 6 hours.
ACRES U.S.A. So just a stone’s throw!
LUNDGREN. Up here we’ve got long, straight roads.
ACRES U.S.A. I want to learn more about your own development as a scientist and as a person who is clearly very fascinated by the natural world. Where did that begin for you?
LUNDGREN. Since I was a kid I’ve always been interested in biology. I knew I wanted to study animals. I worked at the Minnesota zoo and Lake Superior zoo for a number of years as a teenager and in college, and I managed a pet shop as a teenager. When I went to college I knew I wanted to be an animal biologist. When I took an entomology course my freshman year, it was like ‘yep, this is what I’m going to specialize in.’
ACRES U.S.A. What got you interested in insects was this class?
LUNDGREN. It was animal biology, and I could get a job in it. I’ve always been fascinated by the little things that are around us all the time though we don’t really know they are there. When you open your eyes and start paying attention, it blows your mind. Insects fit that mold really well.
ACRES U.S.A. Did you have any particularly important mentors?
LUNDGREN. In graduate school, my Master’s advisor taught me how to write really well and then my Ph.D. advisor taught me why to write, so those two guys were really influential. Rob Wiedenmann, my Ph.D. advisor, and I are still very close.
ACRES U.S.A. What did you do your theses on?
LUNDGREN. For my Master’s, I worked in cabbage, trying to assess organic versus conventional pesticides. We also tried to develop Trichogramma wasps, a little parasitoid wasp that we could release against the Lepidopteran pests of cabbage. For my Ph.D. dissertation I did a risk assessment of Bt corn against a lady beetle.
ACRES U.S.A. What’s the main thing you learned about writing?
LUNDGREN. To me, if you’re doing it well, writing is a process of telling a story. There’s a lot of jargon with scientific and technical writing, but in the end people should be able to come away with a story.
ACRES U.S.A. I was wondering what your dissertation advisor taught you in terms of why to write.
LUNDGREN. Why do I ask these questions? It’s that I’m seeking to understand the world around me. I wonder if it’s a seeking of truth. I’m not sure because I don’t know that we can ever really know the truth, but science is such a powerful thing. You can use it to try to understand the world around you in a logical sort of way. You test ideas. You observe, you generate hypotheses, and then you can test those hypotheses. That’s powerful.
ACRES U.S.A. How did your understanding of insects and agriculture evolve?
LUNDGREN. A lot of times entomologists are unique amongst pest management folks because oftentimes we really like the organisms that we’re trying to kill. I got into entomology because I was fascinated by animals. I didn’t want to kill them.
ACRES U.S.A. Then you learned the hard truth.
LUNDGREN. Well, there were pests that needed to be managed, but I didn’t lose that initial desire to grow life rather than kill it. I believe that the answer is getting out of the way, understanding what’s going on within natural systems and then using those principles, which include biodiversity. That’s central.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s obvious how fond you are of insects. How do they fit in with your commitment to conserving and enhancing biodiversity?
LUNDGREN. Although I’m an entomologist and insects are by far the best organisms in the field, you also have to realize that they’re connected to everything else, and they’re a great surrogate for studying biodiversity in general because they are so responsive to different habitat characteristics.
ACRES U.S.A. What was your most surprising discovery over the years?
LUNDGREN. I started out as an organismal biologist. I loved my lady beetle. This pink and black lady beetle is our lab rat. I’ve published probably a dozen, or maybe two dozen papers on this little Coleomegilla maculata. I used to hate thinking outside of that organismal box. But what surprised me the most — maybe it’s a discovery about myself more than anything — I’m finding more and more that just looking at an organism isn’t enough. I need to try to understand the communities and how they function and also symbioses and how those are important, and then landscapes and how they’re important. So I’m not just an entomologist anymore, and maybe my most surprising discovery is that just knowing insects isn’t enough. But they are still the coolest thing!
ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the hot questions for ecologists and entomologists working in agriculture?
LUNDGREN. I think the biggest question is our sense of scale. So much of what we understand about ecology and entomology is at an organismal scale or even at a field-level scale because those are the scales that we understand and that we’ve had technologies to try to understand. Some new technologies now allow us to look at the microbial scale and at the landscape or regional scale and realize how things are connected. We have no idea about the mechanisms, but it’s clear that it’s important.
ACRES U.S.A. The very small and the very large. Is that where you think it’s important for these disciplines to go?
LUNDGREN. That’s where they are going. There are new journals about landscape ecology, and I have a feeling that this whole concept of symbiosis is going to become really important, too. I think human-caused effects and management effects, especially on community structure, are going to be another really important field. That’s where risk assessment comes into play.
ACRES U.S.A. What factors and pressures do you believe influence the orientation of scientists in your field?
LUNDGREN. The ability to get money is the biggest thing. It influences what projects are done and how they are conducted both short and long-term. A scientist that investigates controversial issues is probably going to sacrifice their long-term financial stability, yet these are some of the more important questions that need to be asked. That’s why we’re moving out from more organized science to a small company that’s more nimble and can respond more quickly if there’s a question that needs to be answered. We can actually start letting the people decide what sorts of questions are answered through crowdfunding and direct communication, or with citizen science where people actually run the experiments themselves. These are the exciting things that I think will be the future.
ACRES U.S.A. As an independent scientist will you be able to participate as much in the training of people with higher degrees?
LUNDGREN. The next generation is going to be really important. I’ll be able to train graduate students through the new company as well. It’s got to be an apprenticeship, but oftentimes the focus is on filling in a project with a graduate student who’s almost like a technician, just a warm body.
ACRES U.S.A. I understand your new endeavor will be based on your farm.
LUNDGREN. We’re just starting Blue Dasher Farm. It’s a research, education and demonstration farm where we’re trying to figure out the ecologically based practices that are working on innovative farms so that we can make things scalable and transferable to a wide swath of farmers that are interested in making important changes. We also have Ecdysis Foundation, which is the nonprofit research company.
ACRES U.S.A. That’s really fantastic.
LUNDGREN. We’re really excited about it. I think it’s going to be a new modus operandi for conducting independent research in this country.
ACRES U.S.A. We certainly need it! I guess you’ve answered the next question which is, what contribution do you aspire to make to agriculture?
LUNDGREN. I want to change the way we produce food.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m really heartened to hear that you have a plan besides your current struggle.
LUNDGREN. It’s been two long years, but I’ve deliberately been not trying to start fights and allowing myself to get kicked around so that when I was ready to fight back, I could win and I think I can win.
ACRES U.S.A. I hope so.
LUNDGREN. By winning, I mean make changes to the system so that other scientists won’t be in the same spot as I am right now.
ACRES U.S.A. It’s very freeing if you know that you have an exit plan.
LUNDGREN. I’ve got protection not just for me, but for the people I care about.
For more on Dr. Jonathan Lundgren and Blue Dasher Farm visit bluedasher.farm or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The farm has an Indiegogo campaign at indiegogo.com/projects/blue-dasher-farm.