Perry Adkisson and Ray Smith have been battling bugs together for more than 30 years. They’ve been attacked as zealots and dismissed as crackpots. They have also transformed farming practices around the world.
As the leading advocates of environmentally sensitive pest control, the two friends - one from Texas, one from California - sparked an ecological revolution that cut insecticide use and increased crop yields worldwide.
Tuesday, they shared the 1997 World Food Prize, splitting a $250,000 cash award for their contribution to improving the world’s food supply.
Long before Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” helped launch the environmental movement by highlighting the indiscriminate use of pesticides, Adkisson and Smith were working on a better way.
“These two men are true pioneers,” said Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for fostering the “green revolution” with his work on resilient varieties of wheat. “Their vision and their determination has helped the world to feed itself in ways that are economically sound, environmentally friendly, economically beneficial and healthier for all mankind.”
Borlaug, who participated in the award ceremony at the National Press Club, conceived the World Food Prize in 1986 as a way to recognize scientists who devote their lives to combating hunger.
Adkisson and Smith were honored for pushing for worldwide acceptance of integrated pest management, a pest control strategy that has helped cut insecticide use on U.S. crops by 50 percent since the early 1970s. Farmers are encouraged to fight insects with natural predators, bug-resistant crops and other environmentally safe techniques. Pesticides are considered a last resort.
The approach is now standard practice on farms from Iowa to Indonesia, but Adkisson and Smith were viewed as heretics when they began their work in the late 1950s.
“At that time, the way to handle insects on cotton and other crops in the South was to blast them with insecticide from Day One,” Adkisson said. Many farmers used the “washday method” of pest control, dousing their crops with DDT and other toxic chemicals every Monday.
After working on similar but separate tracks, Adkisson, 68, and Smith, 78, teamed up in the late 1960s to promote integrated pest management through research, government programs and international seminars.
Although the pest control method requires careful monitoring and some sophisticated science, Adkisson said the basic philosophy is simple.
“You try to work in harmony with nature, rather than against it,” he said.