Written by: Emily Cabrera, UGA IPM Communications Coordinator
Expert/Source: Phil Brannen, Fruit Pathologist, University of Georgia
The Southern Integrated Pest Management Center (Southern IPM Center) has inducted University of Georgia Cooperative Extension fruit pathologist Phil Brannen into the Integrated Pest Management Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to commercial fruit growers throughout the Southern U.S. over the past 30 years.
Each year, the Southern IPM Center recognizes an industry member for extraordinary contributions to the development and implementation of IPM for the honor.
UGA IPM Communications Coordinator Emily Cabrera spoke with Brannen about the award and his career with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
This is a highly recognized award in the region. What does this induction mean to you?
It’s a nice award to have received after the amount of time I’ve been involved in IPM, both teaching and conducting research. It’s truly a lifetime achievement award and I see it as a confirmation that I’ve been on the right track.
What do you think contributed to winning this award?
I’ve worked on a lot of different things over the years. I started out in row crops and, since I’ve been at UGA, I’ve been working specifically with fruits. But at every stage, IPM has always been central to my work. Disease work, by its very nature, requires more time and effort be dedicated to true integrated pest management research than other disciplines because many times weeds or insects are the reservoirs or vectors of whatever disease-causing pathogen you’re dealing with. I’ve done a great deal of multidisciplinary research over the years, and I think that’s a large part of what I’m being recognized for with this award.
What motivates you to do this work?
Farming is one of the most difficult professions I can think of relative to all the things you need in order to survive.
It’s always been a stressful occupation, but with all the requirements farmers have to meet, combined with a growing population, complicated supply chains and environmental pressures, it’s hard for farmers to keep up anymore. And unfortunately we’re losing a lot of our farmers and that expertise over time.
We talk a lot about leaving the land to future generations. I think that means we have to be good stewards of the finite resources we currently have and apply our best research to address some of the root causes of farmer stress. I see it as my duty to use my strengths in the sciences that can be applied to food production to help farmers provide for their families and do better for the world.
Why is IPM important?
A hundred years ago, farmers saw ecosystem interactions, they just didn’t understand what they were looking at. Everything was kind of done in a vacuum.
Over time, we’ve learned that much of what’s happening in our agricultural systems is interrelated. IPM research sets the precedent for collaboration and studying these things together in order to meet our current needs and provide effective tools for future generations of farmers.
What will be your next research focus?
You always have to think about that. The way I determine what I’m going to do next is based on whether I can answer a farmer’s question. If they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, that will direct my research projects and where I’m going to try to get funding.
A lot of what I’ll continue to work on over the next few years is resistance management because that continues to be our biggest challenge. I always say we cannot spray our way out of trouble. We continue to get more fungicides, insecticides and herbicides, but the pathogens, insects and weeds are all adapting to these chemicals.
On the one hand, we’re losing a lot of our older, effective chemicals that don’t develop resistance but are deemed bad for the environment. On the other hand, we’re gaining new, more environmentally friendly chemicals that tend to develop resistance very quickly. We’re going to have to do more work to address this resistance problem. For me, that means incorporating disease management in our breeding programs.
Often the things that drive breeding, for fruits in particular, are things like color or flavor, but we need to double down on breeding disease resistant varieties of fruits and vegetables that will help reduce the need for chemical inputs.
What do you hope your mark has been on the field of IPM?
Almost every year there’s something I can say that has been impactful, that I can look back and say, I know we did a good job.
When I first came here, for example, brown rot was a terrible problem in peaches. I didn’t know how the disease should be managed at that point, but we were losing up to 50% of our peaches to brown rot.
Through a collaboration with Clemson University, we were able to determine that we had resistance to some of the fungicides we were using. We redeveloped our spray programs for peach and have not had brown rot to any large degree for years.
We’ve also had multiple diseases that have come in since I’ve been here that are new diseases. That’s always terrifying because you don’t know whether you can control the disease or not. But I’ve worked on new viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, even algae. I’ve been able to help solve a lot of issues for producers over the years, so now I just go on to the next problem.
What are your thoughts on the future of IPM?
I think IPM works right now because we have the tools we need to pull it off. The ability of farmers to produce the food we need depends on their access to a variety of management tools. If they can no longer use effective chemistries or if push back from the public on genetic modifications becomes too great, we’re all going to feel that impact as consumers and someone’s not going to eat. As IPM researchers, we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us.
Along that vein, I would encourage anybody, if they’re looking at this type of job — whether it’s pathology, entomology, weed science — I can tell you, there’s undoubtedly going be a need for these jobs going forward.
We have more available jobs than there are people to fill them. I think the future is bright for people coming through these programs. We’re not going to reduce our need for IPM. If anything, the need will be greater as farmers rely on our support in order to feed the world.
To learn more about UGA’s work in integrated pest management, visit extension.uga.edu. Check out cultivate.caes.uga.edu for more on Brannen’s research and career path.