Moving away from chemicals: Consumer demand for cleaner food has researchers exploring plant-based extracts to protect against insects

The concept of achieving food independence is a lofty goal, but one which will not likely happen in the near future. It is evident that we still need to rely on big food manufacturers for our daily meals, even as we pray that what we put into our mouth is not laced with the various delicious poisons brought to us by insecticides, pesticides, and fungicides. Monsanto may be evil — but seeing the light is different from doing something about it. Where do we turn to now that we know the negative effects of chemical pesticides?

Researchers say that they may have an answer. A recent analysis on the extract of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius), a flowering plant in the cashew family, concluded that its compounds are effective in mitigating pests that proliferate in wheat grains. Wheat, as we know, is one of the most consumed crops globally and accounts for a large part of various food products worldwide. Wheat grains, however, quickly begin to lose their quality after harvest due to insect infestation. If stored improperly, wheat grains are especially vulnerable to fungal contamination.

This led to the creation of strong chemical insecticides which — while effective — also penetrate into the grain. Heavily-laced crops are then sold in the market and associated with scores of negative side effects, not least of which include an impaired immune system and an increased risk of cancer.

The recent debacle with Monsanto further proves the dangers of incessant and uncontrolled chemical spraying. Nevertheless, experts saw that stopping or limiting the use of chemical pesticides would necessitate an alternative. Natural-based insecticides tried thus far have proven to be effective, but saw problems in terms of scale. It was difficult to reproduce vast amounts of these substances to be used for commercial purposes.


The objective of the new study was to find a natural-based insecticide that could control insects of stored wheat and which could be expanded for use on a large scale. The results of the study are encouraging but are by no means conclusive. Scientists observed that Schinus terebinthifolius was effective over time and only at a degree of 60 percent (at maximum). This meant that insects were still able to hatch in the grain but were somewhat controlled after 51 days at 60 percent. Relative efficacy of the extract was only at 35 percent during the first nine days of storage.

These results are worth taking note of. To the casual observer, the numbers seem dismal, but remember that we are talking about natural substances. There is no one natural compound that works at 100 percent efficiency. An efficacy rate of 35 to 60 is still relatively fair. We must also consider that the efficiency of the extract does not include its lack of side effects. Because it is a naturally-occurring substance, grains treated with the extract do not offer any health adversity.

For your own garden

While scientists determine the extent to which they will use Schinus terebinthifolius, you can take the steps to rid your garden or farm of insects naturally. Here are some alternatives to try:

  • Diatomaceous earth — These are fossilized microbes that have been ground into a powder. Diatomaceous earth can be used for crawling, hard-bodied insects such as ants, spiders, cutworms, and onion root maggots. (Related: Why and how to use diatomaceous earth for your body and home.)
  • Soap sprays — These are effective in killing aphids and sap-sucking pests like mites, leafhoppers, and thrips.
  • Neem oil — This all-natural insecticide can kill everything from cabbage worms to squash bugs. You might have to repeatedly spray neem oil on your garden though as some insects develop a resistance to it.

For more expert gardening tips or news about natural insecticides, visit

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