New methods of pest control are based on low-tox solutions that can be more sustainable and effective than harsh chemicals
In recent years, several critical factors have driven the pest control industry and business towards low-tox solutions.
Stringent legislation, such as the FDA Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) and the EU Biocidal Products Regulation, now regulates the use and development of new biocidal products, driving the innovation of low-tox alternatives.
Businesses, meanwhile, are reacting to rising expectations from consumers, many of whom are more aware of the effect of overuse of pesticides on the environment and health.
The pest control industry itself has also matured significantly. Like many other sectors, we are constantly researching and solutions that are more sustainable, effective and are better for the planet overall.
These are all compelling reasons why pest control is changing. What’s also fascinating from an innovation perspective is that these driving forces are emerging at a time when advances in technology are also enabling low-tox solutions that are more targeted and effective than many of the chemical solutions that are still used today.
The advantages of connected technology and the Internet of Things
Many new developments are based on the automation of pest observation. Currently, for example, the pest control industry is embracing the Internet of Things to change the way facilities are monitored. We can now install connected traps and devices to carry out remote monitoring 24/7, so technicians don’t have to physically visit a site to see if pests are present. When they do visit a site, technicians don’t need to spend time checking traps. Instead they can focus on developing low-tox, preventative risk mitigation strategies instead.
In the agriculture space, we are also experimenting with bespoke monitoring solutions, such as drones fitted with thermal imaging technology, that can survey large areas of crops. The technical capability of the thermal heat and hyperspectral imaging software fitted in these drones is so high that they can view microscopic details and find localised infestations. This enables us to treat small areas and pest problems with low-tox solutions before they spread.
Prevention through predictive analytics
Another major advantage of these new monitoring methods is that they provide us with new data, much of which was not available before. The drones mentioned above, for instance, can monitor the chlorophyll level in plants and predict the damage a plant will sustain before it happens.
We don’t just collect data from these devices and use it in isolation. We can now overlay it with public data sources, such as weather records, to start predicting pest behaviour based on different variables. In turn, this is fuelling sophisticated predictive analytics that enables us to apply targeted, low-tox treatments in localised spots, rather than blanket treating facilities with chemicals. In many cases, when you have the right support with innovative applications of technology, there is no need to use any harsh chemicals at all.
New developments in non-toxic heat treatments
Ironically, some of the recent innovations are enhancements of ideas that have been around for centuries. In the 18th Century, early settlers in Australia developed rudimentary ways to use heat to eliminate insects. Today, modern technology is now being applied to the idea to scale it up into a commercial model.
Rentokil’s Entotherm, for example, is a new solution that eradicates bed bugs and cockroaches. Rather than using sprays, which often don’t penetrate the hard outer shell, the heat delivered by the Entotherm system kills insects from the inside through dehydration and damage to essential physiological processes. This method avoids any risk of the insects developing resilience to spray chemicals and passing on resistant genes to future offspring.
Another benefit is that the heat effectively kills all the life stages of insects – egg, larva, pupa and adult – without needing go higher than 56-60 degrees Celsius. This temperature is high enough to kill pests rapidly, but it doesn’t cause structural damage to buildings or objects.
New advances in biopesticides
It’s not just hardware and data that is driving low-toxic innovation. Rentokil’s Global Science Centre is also currently developing new organic-compound solutions that can repel or destroy pests. One solution we are currently developing, for example, uses fungal spores that attach to the external body surface of cockroaches. The spores then germinate and bore through the outer shell to reach the insects’ body cavity, after which they multiply and kill the insect.
Solutions like these have zero mammalian toxicity and only low volumes are needed. Another significant benefit is that unlike chemicals, pests can’t become resistant to the spores. This means that we’re able to get closer to solving a long-standing problem with how insects learn to adapt to chemicals and pass on resistant genes. It’s a clear illustration that many of the innovative chemical-free solutions being developed today combine higher levels of efficacy with reduced environmental impact.
The future of low-tox innovation
A word about the future. What would happen if we could communicate with pests like mice, rather than just monitor them? This is something we are experimenting with at Rentokil now using ultrasound technology. It is an idea borne out of frustration with the fact that current ways of monitoring mice (e.g. connected traps, or fluorescent gels) only pick up activity when the mouse interacts with the solution and activates it. If the mouse is merely nearby, then no pest activity will be recorded.
We’re currently developing a solution to this problem that can listen to mice by picking up the high frequencies they emit, which are higher than the upper audible limit of human hearing. As we continue to develop and analyse the potential of this innovative solution, we will also be exploring the possibility of sending messages back to mice to repel them from the area.
Communicating with mice may sound like science fiction for now. But how often does today’s science fiction become tomorrow’s normal? What we can be sure of is that the need and demand for low-tox pest control is going to continue to increase – driven forward inexorably by rising consumer demand and increasing regulation. We can also be certain that new, continually evolving innovations will help to effectively meet those demands with safer, greener solutions for pest control.