New biocontrols for alien pests such as spotted-wing drosophila (SWD) are among the cutting-edge developments under way at East Malling Research (EMR), its programme leader Professor Jerry Cross told last week's innovation conference.
"Integrated pest and disease management is the cornerstone of the fruit industry's future viability and our research is vital to UK plc," he said.
"Growing fruit in polytunnels offers opportunities to use biocontrols that you couldn't use in the open field. It's still difficult to get reliable, effective biocontrols, but we are looking at new agents such as DNA viruses or nudiviruses against SWD."
The Kent institute is also researching how such pests can be controlled using signalling chemicals used by host plants and pests.
"We have had great success in developing semiochemicals such as midge pheromones. We have identified the sex pheromones for most midge pests and have incorporated these into traps."
While simple yeastand sugar-based traps against SWD developed at East Malling "are being laid in their hundreds", he added: "It's very inconvenient - we need a synthetic lure."
Other forms of pest control under development include improved aphid control through disrupting "aphid-ant mutualism", by which ants defend aphids from predators, and research into ways of promoting earwig populations in orchards.
"They are voracious night-time predators of many important insect pests, but there is huge variation in their populations from one orchard to another. We want to know why," said Cross.
On disease control, he added: "We need to find alternatives to soil sterilisation. We have found a soil sterilant derived from lavender that reduces strawberry wilt and a product is now being developed as part of a Technology Strategy Board-funded project."
EMR disease specialist Dr Angela Berrie is working to make post-harvest treatment of apples unnecessary by identifying factors that make rot in storage more likely and developing regimes to delay its onset, said Cross.
Exotic pests and diseases More to come
Professor Jerry Cross has warned that "there are more to come" in the wake of exotic pests and diseases such as spotted-wing drosophila and western flower thrips.
These include blueberry scorch virus, which has already migrated from North America to mainland Europe, he said. "It's not found here yet, but perhaps that's just a matter of time."