2017 Sterling B. Hendricks Memorial Lectureship Award

Sponsored by USDA-Agricultural Research Service, and Co-Sponsored by AGFD and AGRO

New opportunities for sustainable food production from the chemical science of agriculture

John Pickett is internationally celebrated for his pioneering work on insect pheromones. His discoveries about how semiochemicals govern communication between insects and, more widely, manage interactions between insects and their plant or animal hosts have been remarkable. These contributions are significantly enhancing pest management and agricultural sustainability.

John made the first chemical characterizations of mosquito, sandfly and aphid sex pheromones. The chemical identification of the aphid sex pheromone in 1987 was for the vetch aphid, Megoura viciae Buckton, a pest of several crops including legumes and beans. He subsequently led the development of methods for commercial scale production of the aphid sex pheromone components from catmint Nepeta cataria (Lamiaceae).

In addition, John was the first to report enhanced insect attraction efficacy when pheromones and plant-derived semiochemicals were used together in traps. Such work is playing a leading role in the contemporary moves away from wide spectrum pesticides to more precise controls through the use of compounds that target specific pests at critical stages in their life cycle.

Discovering this beyond additive increase from mixing of the two types has not only been important for trapping higher number of insect pests in detection, monitoring, and control programs, but it also has been an important step in understanding the complexity of semiochemicals as part of the science of chemical ecology. The impact of his research reaches far beyond the scientific and agricultural communities, providing benefits to the natural ecosystem and society.

This is particularly exemplified by John’s work in Africa where he has helped develop a “push–pull” companion cropping system that is overcoming some of the major limitations on grain production. Yields of the main staple and cash cereal crops in sub-Saharan Africa have been severely constrained by parasitic striga weeds and stemborers. Now by intercropping maize with a repellent plant desmodium as a push combined with planting an attractive trap plant Napier grass—the pull—both delivering semiochemicals as plant secondary metabolites repelling pests and attracting beneficial insects, farmers are surmounting the limitation problems without harming the ecology. More than 40,000 subsistence farmers in West Kenya have already adapted the system and are benefitting from this practical approach.

John recevied his B.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. He is currently the Michael Elliott Distinguished Research Fellow at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, England, the longest running agricultural research station in the world. He also serves as Deputy Chair of the British Crop Production Council’s Board of Trustees.

Among John’s many honors and awards are Fellow of the Royal Society, the Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture, The Croonian Prize Lecture, Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, President of the Royal Entomological Society (2014), and being made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to biological chemistry.

John has more than 530 publications and patents. In his spare time, he is a jazz trumpeter in the six-piece jazz band Christine and the Stackyard Stompers.