Bozeman scientists helping protect Montana's potato crops
July 10, 2012
BOZEMAN - A biological pesticide developed at Montana State University will enter the fight this month to control a threat to Montana’s $38 million seed potato industry after receiving a provisional go-ahead from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
MSU College of Agriculture Professor Barry Jacobsen
EPA’s emergency exemption for Certis USA's product BmJ WG will allow Montana growers to use the agent discovered by researchers with MSU's College of Agriculture to combat potato virus Y, or PVY. The virus has shown a resurgence in seed potatoes in the United States, said Nina Zidack, director of the MSU Potato Lab, the facility that certifies that seed potatoes grown in Montana meet very strict disease tolerances.
“The growers are certainly very enthusiastic for the arrival of any new tool to reduce infection from PVY,” Zidack said.
The “Section 18” regulatory exemption spurred BmJ onto the commercial market for Montana seed potato growers months earlier than a normal EPA registration process would have permitted.
Barry Jacobsen, a professor of plant sciences and plant pathology in MSU's College of Agriculture, discovered BmJ in 1994 during efforts to tame outbreaks of Cercospora leaf spot in northeast Montana. By isolating from the healthy plants in otherwise devastated fields, Jacobsen discovered a bacterium he dubbed Bacillus mycoides isolate J, or BmJ, that could trigger the plants' immune response to various pathogens. In the research Jacobsen has led since, BmJ has shown an astonishing ability to control plant diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses.
A biological control - as opposed to an industrial chemical-based pesticide - BmJ induces what scientists call systemic acquired resistance in plants. The bacterium has the potential to be an important disease-control tool for growers of a wide variety of crops, Jacobsen said.
That promise prompted Jacobsen and MSU to patent the discovery. Certis licensed the technology in 2011 and is in the process of clearing the EPA regulatory hurdles required for the product's commercial release in the U.S.
Facing increased pressure by potato virus Y in seed potatoes, and the difficulty in controlling the aphids that spread the disease, Jacobsen and Zidack asked the Montana Department of Agriculture to petition the EPA for what is known as Section 18 emergency exemption on BmJ.
Section 18 of Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act allows the EPA to allow an unregistered use of a pesticide for a limited time if the EPA determines that an emergency condition exists.
Jacobsen said the problem is the possibility that potato virus Y could disrupt the cycle of production in the certified seed potatoes, which must meet minimum requirements for disease tolerance. Growers begin the four-year cycle of seed potato production with what is called nuclear generation seed - a product that has been certified as free of any virus or bacterial diseases by Zidack's lab.
“The emergency is, if you miss enough generations, you have to start all over again,” Jacobsen said. “So this year's crop is critical to protect. And based on three years of field research on BmJ in potato crops, we believe that it will give the farmers a much-needed boost in the fight against potato virus Y.”
Montana is an important source of seed stock for U.S. potato farmers. Zidack said more than 12 percent of potatoes grown in the United States comes from the certified seed potatoes produced in Montana.
There are 52 families growing seed potatoes in Montana, with the largest production coming from the Gallatin Valley. Additional seed potato acreage is located in Beaverhead, Madison, Broadwater, Lake, Flathead, Deerlodge, and Kinsey counties.
In June, the EPA granted a Section-18 exemption that calls for the use of BmJ on up to 2,675 acres of seed potatoes in the state. The first shipments of BmJ will land on the shelves of Montana agricultural supply stores this week.
Jacobsen said he was glad the technology will have its official debut in Montana.
“Since we discovered it in Montana and we did years of research on it here, it's nice that its first commercial use will be by Montana farmers,” Jacobsen said.