Early in life, Surendra Dara decided that no matter which field he chose, he needed to make an impact on it. Always interested in science, he chose agriculture and specialized in entomology.
“It attracted me because it dealt with arthropods and there are a lot of physiological similarities to the human world,” Dara said. “It was also critical for growing food and feeding humans.”
Dara is now an entomopathologist with the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in San Luis Obispo, and has an established reputation for exploring innovative options to control pests using microbials as biological controls, and showing growers how they can also help with plant growth, drought resistance and fighting diseases.
He works with a variety of crops but recently has focused on strawberries and vegetables such as cabbage and tomatoes, with the goal of developing reliable alternatives to chemicals for pest management.
Dara grew up in southern India, and moved to the U.S to work on his Ph.D. on the microbial control of aphids in tobacco plants, at Virginia Tech.
“Biologicals play an important role in maintaining the balance in our lives — whether it’s crop production, the environment or our health,” he said. “The opportunity I got with my Ph.D. opened up my horizons to pursue this in earnest.”
He has worked in different parts of the U.S and Canada, in industry, government and academia.
He also has done volunteer stints with the U.S Agency for International Development when the organization invited him to travel to Bangladesh, Maldova and Haiti to educate local farmers about integrated pest management and organic options that were within their means.
Power of fungi
He has conducted field trials and studies on Beauveria bassiana, a fungus, to show how it benefits plants like cabbage and strawberry to fight Fusarium wilt and charcoal rot. The fungus also helps control Lygus hesperus, a major pest in several crops including alfalfa, cotton and vegetables.
How do fungi help with drought resistance?
“They act as extensions of the root and help absorb water and cope with salt stress and water stress,” he explained.
Depending on the crop’s needs, the fungi, which are commercially available, can be sprayed above ground or used with subsurface drip irrigation. Growers can also use them much earlier in the process, by coating the seeds before planting.
Dara has also been working with biostimulants and beneficial microbes to improve crop health and yields in tomatoes and strawberries.
“My contribution to agricultural science would be to promote entomopathogens, botanicals, and biostimulants, and demonstrate how they can be a part of IPM, through extensive outreach,” he said.
He also helped redesign the integrated pest management model for UCANR.
He emphasizes that microbial control is a technique that has been around for years, but his role has been in educating growers about these chemical alternatives. He also studies botanical extracts and works on incorporating them into IPM strategies.
Entomologists such as Dara are at the forefront of the movement to reduce chemical use in farm fields. He works with both conventional and organic growers, focusing on increasing the use of biologicals in conventional farm fields.
“My innovation is in using these insect pathogenic fungi for multiple purposes,” Dara said. “Instead of using different products for killing bugs, increasing drought resistance and water absorption, why not use one agent that can do all of it?”
This saves growers money, time and effort. The fungi can take about one week to get inside plants, and begin treating infection within four to five days.
Dara continues to work to popularize microbial biologicals, with an eye on the long term.
“We need to be realistic about sustainable food production,” he said. “My goal is to have one system instead of two (conventional and organic), where chemicals are needed, but for the most part we opt for non-chemical options.”