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    Watch: PhD student set to investigate persistent potato pest problem

    Posted 11 December 2023

    A multi-year research project into a persistent potato pest problem is underway at Harper Adams University.

    The PhD project – one of a variety of integrated pest management (IPM) projects at the University – will be undertaken by John Owen, who is originally from Chester – though he has been based in East Anglia for the past two decades.

    His work, which is sponsored by CTP-SAI and CUPGRA in collaboration with NIAB, will be a four-year investigation into the development of new stimulo-deterrent diversion methods of controlling potato aphids and the viruses which they carry – which can have a severe economic impact upon potato growers.

    John said: “Stimulo-deterrent diversion, or ‘push-pull’ as it is more commonly known, is a pest management strategy that utilises a variety of behaviour modifying cues, both visual and olfactory, to divert pest species away from their target - the ‘push’ - and towards a trap area where they can be more easily controlled - the ‘pull.’

    “It has proved an effective control method for medical, veterinary and crop pests.

    “In crop protection, strategies include the use of intercropping and the application of essential oils that actively deter pests or mask crop plant olfactory cues, the application of mulches to obscure visual cues, and visually attractive crop borders.”

    Using the facilities at Harper Adams – including trials in the Jean Jackson Glasshouse and studies in the University’s laboratories – John aims to examine and refine the best methods for both push and pull systems, before going on to take these approaches out into the field.

    John has also recorded a short explainer video about the project – which can be seen at the top of this page – and will be keeping his sponsors updated about this work and his discoveries as they progress.

    He added: “I’m very much looking forward to meeting CUPGRA members and sharing the findings of what promises to be an exciting project.

    “The push-pull approach has a lot of potential, particularly for the control of non-persistent viruses, which are spread before insecticides can act.

    “Several potential components for a ‘push-pull’ system to control of aphids have been explored for potato crops, yet no robust system has been developed, and certainly not one that provides sufficient virus protection to the levels required for seed crop production.

    “This project aims to address this.  The goal is to produce a workable system for both seed and ware crops.”

    The new project is the latest part of John’s Harper Adams story – which began more than three decades ago, and which has given his life a new direction since his return.

    He added: “I first came to Harper back in 1990, to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Crop Protection when Harper was still an agricultural college. 

    “I've always been 'bug mad' and had been looking with interest at the Entomology course, so when I was made redundant in 2020, I took the opportunity to come back and study for my Masters. I enjoyed that so much that I decided to apply to do a PhD!

    “I absolutely love being back at Harper.  Obviously there have been a lot of changes since my first visit – it’s bigger, with more facilities, and offers a greater range of courses - but it still has that unique Harper spirit that made my first visit so enjoyable."

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