Mustard may be next organic pesticide

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MOSCOW, Idaho – Mustard, horseradish, even broccoli and cauliflower, pack a punch in more ways than U.S. consumers may appreciate.

Australians, after all, have been buying Yandilla Mustard as a natural slug killer for years.

University of Idaho soil scientist Matt Morra is tracking the effects of a powerful chemical presence found in the condiments and vegetables from the ground up.

He sees a bright future for efforts to commercialize mustard’s agricultural production for condiment use and its industrial byproducts.

A pesticide? A soil biochemist by trade, Morra leads a research project analyzing mustard’s potential as an organic pesticide.

He is also tracing the fundamental chemistry and biochemistry that is the basis of pest control and technological applications.

Morra is focusing his research on specific chemicals, glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, produced by mustard and its relatives in the Brassica family.

Anti-cancer agent. Mustard’s pungent chemical prowess hinges on glucosinolates, which accumulate most in its seeds.

Most of the chemicals remain behind in the seed meal when the oil is extracted.

When ground for condiment mustard, natural enzymes and water convert the original compound into isothiocyanates.

At low concentrations, Morra said, the latter chemicals act as anti-cancer agents.

When the meal is mixed into soil, those chemicals show impressive results against pests and weeds.

Morra’s ultimate goal is to turn the chemicals into powerful biologically-based pesticides.

Promising results. The end result may be most promising for advocates who hope to turn mustard, canola or rapeseed oil into biodiesel, a homegrown fuel source.

His interest in the chemical properties of rapeseed meal began 15 years ago.

“I dropped it then because there didn’t seem like there would be enough meal,” he said.

Now the increasing interest in biodiesel production may yield a wealth of meal, Morra said.

The U.S. Department of Energy powered up Idaho research three years ago with a grant to take a more detailed look at biodiesel’s potential. That grant helped Morra to begin field-testing his idea at Paradise Farm Organics south of Moscow, Idaho.

“I think this has a lot of potential. I think the time is right.”

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