December 29, 2016

Innovation of the Week: Tobacco as an Organic Pesticide

Health concerns over tobacco use have hurt tobacco farmers—the number of farms growing tobacco in the United States dropped from 512,000 in 1954 to 56,977 in 2002. But the poisonous quality of tobacco could help farmers enter the pesticide market.

While the potential for tobacco to be used as an organic pesticide has always existed—farmers and gardeners have been using homemade tobacco pesticide for years—it has never been commercially viable. That could be changing, however, as consumers demand organic vegetables and fruits and producers look for alternative forms of pesticide in order to meet that demand.

Tobacco can be used as a natural pesticide which is good news for farmers who have seen sales drop due to public health concerns. (Photo credit: The Goldsboro News-Argus)

Last year researchers at the American Chemical Society discovered a way to convert tobacco leaves into bio-oil which can be used as a natural pesticide. The bio-oil is produced through pyrolysis, a thermo-chemical process that involves heating tobacco leaves to about 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The researchers tested tobacco bio-oils on 11 different fungi, four bacteria, and the Colorado potato beetle. They found that bio-oil was effective at killing the potato beetle as well as a fungus that kills eggplant, pepper, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber.

The researchers discovered that when nicotine was removed from the bio-oil it still worked against the Colorado potato beetle.  Although more research needs to be done to look into the possible health effects of using tobacco as a pesticide, the promising results of this research could help struggling tobacco farmers improve their livelihoods by providing a new market for their products.

Tell us what you think. Is tobacco a good organic pesticide? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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