Tim McCoy, Extension Associate with the Virginia Tech Pesticide Programs and Virginia State Liaison to the IR-4 Project

More than 40% of your daily consumption comes from crops that are deemed by the USDA to be “minor” or “specialty” crops. These commodities are only minor in comparison to the major crop groups like corn, soybean, cotton, wheat, etc. These minor crops typically represent the entirety of many growers’ portfolios, and for them, are far more than just some “specialty”. However, agrochemical manufacturers focus their effort on large acreage crops that offer greater potential for significant sales, and often have little financial incentive to generate the EPA-required data needed to register a pesticide for use on these minor crops. 

This is where the IR-4 Project comes in! Created in 1963, through funding from the USDA, the IR-4 Project has become a central force in generating the crucial data needed to register pesticides for use on minor crops. The group’s mission is simple and clear: “Facilitate regulatory approval of sustainable pest management technology for specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, ornamental and other horticultural crops) and specialty uses to promote public wellbeing.” 

Despite the fact that few in the public know it exists, the IR-4 Project is now involved in many areas that are key to making pest management possible. While the group’s activities include efforts in animal and public health, pollinator protection, and international harmonization of pesticide regulation, its core programs still focus on food crops, environmental horticulture, biopesticides, and organic agriculture support research. All of these projects ultimately flow through the Project Request approval process, a system for nominating and choosing which research priorities each year will be funded for investigation.  

The process starts in one of two ways: at the local level, or initiated by agrochemical industry interests as they develop new pesticides. At the local level, growers (or Extension personnel, or university Specialists) may discover a pest, plant disease, or weed for which there is not a labeled or adequate pesticide solution. This was the case when obliquebanded leafrollers (OBLR), traditionally a pest on apples, became a pest of cherries in the early 2000s. Through work done at Michigan State University, the pesticide emamectin benzoate was identified as a possible management tool. Through research conducted by IR-4 cooperators, the necessary efficacy, crop safety, and residue data, were generated to allow the EPA to expand the label in 2019 to include cherries. As a result, growers now have a new tool to combat both OBLR and spotted-wing drosophila in cherry. 

The other common way that new pesticides gain EPA approval for use on specialty crops is when they are brought to the attention of IR-4 by the agrochemical industry during product development. A new chemistry that may show promise for control of a pest in a major crop, may be suggested as a potential fix for the same pest in a specialty crop. The industry has some incentive to expand their registration of products because the federal government offers longer patent protection for a chemistry if minor use crops are added to a pesticide label. The IR-4 group makes decisions about the need and feasibility of conducting the research to generate data through an annual priority-setting meeting. Each year, IR-4 selects approximately 50 pesticide projects to fund in order to generate the necessary data.

The 2020 priority-setting meeting concluded September 17th, where over the course of four days, 422 project requests were whittled down to 59 funded projects for 2021. This process sometimes feels like a “horse trading” session where participants (university researchers, IR-4 state liaisons, grower reps, EPA regulators, and industry reps) advocate for their priorities. You can imagine that it is a challenge balancing the needs and desires of different commodity representatives from around the nation in order to prioritize what pest problems gets the research attention in the coming year. No one gets everything they want, but the process is fair and collegial.  

For 2021, two herbicide priorities were funded that may be of interest to readers of SFN. One priority was for studying quinclorac for the control of clover and bindweed in grape vineyards. The other was for generating data on the efficacy of using florpyrauxifen-benzyl to control broadleaf annuals in blueberry production. These projects will likely take two to three years of research data in order to justify an EPA registration expansion.  

Since its inception, through the priority-setting meetings, and the research that has been conducted as a result, IR-4 has assisted in the registration of nearly 50,000 registered crops uses. These uses have enabled specialty crop growers to produce healthier crops and reduce crop damage and food waste.  

If you would like to get involved with the valuable work that IR-4 does, you might consider becoming a member of the Commodity Liaison Committee (CLC). This group of volunteers works to educate policy advisors, industry, and IR-4 personnel, about the specific needs of your commodity group. In the last two years, actions of the CLC have resulted in a potential increase in funding for IR-4, which has remained flat at approximately $12M annually for the last decade. Competing budget proposals now before Congress will, hopefully add 3 – 7 million dollars per year to the IR-4 budget, which will enable the organization to do more of its valuable work. 

If you want to find out more about the vital and diverse work that IR-4 is involved in, a great place to start is the “Food Crop Success Stories”, or you can contact your state liaison.  

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