Pheromone insect controls ready to disrupt world pesticide industry, CEO says at Ag Innovation conference

Lab Technician Brenda Avalos works in ISCA’s biology lab. Photo by Kurt Miller.

The use of formulations with pheromones and other naturally occurring compounds to control the most damaging insects in agriculture is poised to disrupt the world pesticide industry.

“These compounds are not only effective pest controls, but they are also safe and non-polluting,” said Agenor Mafra-Neto, the CEO and founder of ISCA, Inc., during the 12th Annual Ag Innovation Showcase conference hosted by the Larta Institute.

Mafra-Neto spoke Thursday as an alumnus of Larta’s product commercialization programs during the virtual conference held Aug. 27-28, 2020. The non-profit institute based in Los Angeles works to bring cutting-edge and sustainable innovations to the global marketplace for the betterment of the planet.

Mafra-Neto explained that pheromones and other compounds that affect insect behavior emitted by plants and animals are being harnessed to protect crops. If properly deployed, these compounds collectively known as semiochemicals, significantly reduce or, in some cases, eliminate the need for conventional pesticides. These compounds do not harm bees or other non-target species.

“We can use pheromones and other semiochemicals to protect crops in several ways,” Mafra-Neto said. “Mating disruption is when we put in the field thousands of point sources of a synthetic version of a pest moth species’ sex pheromone, the male moths expend their limited energy following false trails, leaving the unmated females behind to lay infertile eggs. So, no hungry caterpillars to destroy the crop.”

We also use semiochemicals laced with tiny amounts of insecticide to attract the pest and kill it, which is an effective strategy that reduces insecticide use by orders of magnitude.

Agenor Mafra-Neto

Semiochemicals evolved in nature through millions of years of natural selection. So, the synthetic versions used in agriculture are not prone to pest insect resistance, a problem that has been plaguing conventional insecticides.

For the last several decades technical barriers have relegated semiochemical controls only to high-value specialty crops because of the high costs of pheromone synthesis, and due to their very labor-intensive manual application methods. Many of the old formulations used plastic release devices that must be placed in the field by hand and later retrieved for disposal.

ISCA, however, has created effective flowable formulations and developed leading-edge chemical and biochemical technologies that have broken down the technical and costs barriers that have hampered the adoption of semiochemical insect controls in all sectors of agriculture. These breakthroughs have been backed by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, and other organizations.

Specifically, the Riverside, Calif.-based company developed formulations that can be applied at very low volumes mechanically by tractor, aircraft, or drones. These formulations slowly release semiochemicals at the necessary concentrations and timeframes to control specific pest species. These formulations later biodegrade in the field without harm to the environment. Further, ISCA has brought down the cost of the synthesis of pheromone and other semiochemical active ingredients.

ISCA has a portfolio of more than 70 semiochemical solutions to control a wide array of pests that damage specialty crops, such as grapes and apples, and row crops, including corn, soybean, and cotton. ISCA also is developing with federal grant support several safe controls for mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue, the West Nile and Zika viruses, and other blood-borne diseases.

With an extensive portfolio of insect controls addressing unmet needs, ISCA now has subsidiaries in the USA, Brazil, and India, each with R&D, manufacturing, sales, and distribution capacity.

“We are rapidly expanding and just beginning to disrupt the conventional pesticide market,” Mafra-Neto said. “We are the next generation of insect control.”

About ISCA: ISCA, Inc. provides the next generation of insect control products for world agriculture by harnessing the power of semiochemicals that manipulate the behavior of targeted insect species. ISCA’s insect control products are environmentally sustainable, cost-effective to both row and specialty crops, and amenable to mechanical application. ISCA is headquartered Riverside, Calif., and has subsidiaries with offices and manufacturing facilities in the United States, Brazil, and India.

About the Larta Institute: Founded in 1993, Larta empowers innovators to bring cutting edge ideas to market. Its mission is to energize the development of technologies that promote a sustainable planet. Our proven model enables entrepreneurs to transform their ideas into workable solutions that feed, fuel and heal the world.