Using natural plant defenses for sustainable agriculture. Self-defense in plants may be part of an effective solution to sustainable agriculture, in particular, growing some crops without chemical pesticides.
All plants contain poisons, for example, the sharp spice of horseradish and wasabi, nicotine in tobacco, and the bitterness in some cucumbers. At low doses, these chemicals can be harmless, but their origin lies in the evolution of self-defense against pests. Through the study of crops (cucumber, radish) and wild plant species (milkweeds, evening primroses), Cornell University’s, Anurag Agrawal’s lab has reconstructed the evolutionary history of self-defense in plants and discovered that some combinations of toxins have been sustained over long periods during plant evolution.
The interactions between monarch butterflies and milkweed have become a model to understanding ways to maximize use of nature’s plant defenses for pest control, rather than synthetic pesticides, to further the cause of sustainable agriculture.