Much as professional historians talked of a post-1989 world after the fall of communism and a post-9/11 world after the attacks on the Twin Towers, Ron Smith speaks of a post-1996 world in terms of cotton insect control in the Deep South.

As Smith, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s long-serving cotton entomologist, sees it, 1996 was the year that changed everything.  

It not only changed the way producers dealt with cotton pests, but also challenged the way they look at the two most critical facets of insect control: tools and management — in other words, the technologies growers use to control insects versus the crop management practices they employ to reduce the likelihood of pest outbreaks.

Before 1996, growers had looked at tools and management as either/or propositions; after 1996, they’ve tended to look at them as two sides of the same coin.

What ended as a watershed year for growers will also be remembered as one of extreme desperation — the year that farmers and insect-control experts such as Smith were forced to think the unthinkable: whether cotton could continue to be grown profitably in the Deep South.

Since the late 1970s, farmers had relied on pyrethroids as their standby of cotton-insect control. Their introduction not only resolved the delayed maturity of cotton plants caused by the applications of phosphates, but also freed growers of crop management concerns, such as preserving beneficial insects to help with tobacco budworm control.

“The era of pyrethroids was probably the most extended era we ever had [with cotton insect control],” Smith says. “We didn’t need a lot of management because we now had the tools to cover everything and to control everything.

“Yields improved tremendously.”

However, by the mid-1990s, pyrethroids were losing their effectiveness on tobacco budworms, one of the most virulent cotton pests. In addition, sucking pests, such as spider mites, aphids and whiteflies re-emerged as significant problems, Smith says.

Weevil eradication entered picture

Compounding the problem, he says, were unintended effects stemming from the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. By eliminating many beneficial species along with the weevils, eradication efforts in the Deep South ended up benefiting two other cotton pests, beet armyworms and tobacco budworms— a problem that had not occurred in the Carolinas where eradication already was in full swing.

Adding to the problem was that central Alabama marked the farthest advance of the eradication effort.

 “We were the dividing line — for several years the eradication program did not advance to create new buffer areas.”

The continuous spraying in this region to stave off encroachments from weevils from the untreated areas only compounded the problems growers were encountering with the elimination of beneficial species.

By 1996, growers had only one card to play. Smith and other entomologists had already participated in field trials of cotton equipped with bollworm-resistant genes — Bollgard cotton as it was dubbed by its developer, Monsanto.

“I felt really comfortable with Bollgard cotton,” says Smith, who contends that adoption of the technology will be remembered as one of the major turning points in cotton-insect control.

“The 1996 introduction of genetically-altered Bollgard cotton was one of the biggest events that has ever occurred with cotton insects,” he says. “I can’t imagine a more significant one that that.

“We were at the point at which we couldn’t grow cotton any longer because of the budworm.”

As he sees it, the adoption of the technology not only staved off disaster, but also changed the face of cotton production, largely for the better.

“Basically, we’ve learned to manage secondary pests as we’ve watched the whole cotton-insect landscape evolve into a low-spray environment — between zero and four foliar sprays a year now.”

However, Smith says something equally significant followed that milestone year: a profound change in the way growers viewed the two principles of controlling insects: tools and crop management, which until then tended to be viewed as mutually exclusive.

“For most of the past century, management practices were inversely related to the types of tools we had and how effective they were,” Smith says. “When they had highly effective tools, they backed away from management practices.”

The bitter experiences of the late 1980s and early 1990s not only demonstrated the value of both, but also underscored why they should be used in tandem.

“New tools and technology are initially very effective but, historically, not sustainable forever,” Smith says. “On the other hand, management alone results in some level of damage.

 “So the best thing is to use them together and preserve the technology for as long as possible, because both ensure sustainability over the long-term.”

Smith says the ways cotton producers have learned to combine technology and sound crop management have set a benchmark for other crops.

“If there is one crop that demonstrates this better than cotton, I’m not aware of it.”