‘Pot prof’ leading trailblazing cannabis IPM research

In the world of insect biological control, the nearly microscopic Trichogramma wasps are the beneficial powerhouse in the parasitoid arena – destroying the eggs of menacing pests, preventing the devouring of entire crops. 

These natural control agents are also why Niagara College professor Sébastien Jacob remained in the entomology field, rather than following his second passion as an ice/rock climbing guide.

Fresh out of university, Jacob had accepted the first summer job opportunity as a field research assistant for a bio-control company producing “tricho-cards” to release these egg parasitoids into corn fields to control the European corn borer.

“These fascinating parasitoid wasps, although so tiny (0.15mm in length), got me hooked to biological control and integrated pest management,” he recalls.

So curious was he by the sexual behavioural mysteries of these wasps that he dedicated this his thesis topic for his master’s degree in Entomology-Biocontrol Science at the University of Quebec in Montreal (2004) and continued his research in the field of integrated pest management (IPM).

Before his arrival to Niagara College in 2018 to teach in the Horticulture, Greenhouse and Commercial Cannabis programs, Jacob had spent 20 years working in both research and as an integrated pests and diseases management specialist in a wide variety of crop systems, including training and teaching growers throughout North, Central and South America the art of implementing and maintaining a successful IPM program.

Jacob’s mastery of the intricate and highly-specialized field was a boon to the College’s new Commercial Cannabis program – the first of its kind in Canada – given the lack of general knowledge on applying critical crop controls of an industry only recently legalized in the country. 

“Few only utilize supplemental food for their beneficial organisms, or know the limit of temperature and relative humidity for various beneficial agents in their crop,” he explains, adding there’s a lack of familiarity with the negative impact of sprays intervention (for diseases and/or pests) on all beneficial organisms in the system.

“IPM is a systematic approach that encompasses all these factors together,” says Jacob. “Sadly, many growers still shoot themselves in the foot, by spraying either too much or at the wrong time, thus killing their beneficial insects, which increase IPM cost and sometimes leads to crop failures.”  

While there’s little surprise as to the lack of robust research and knowledge transfer on cannabis IPM, given it’s a new agricultural system, the pressing need remains.

Today, in addition to his teaching, Jacob works tirelessly leading class-based research for cannabis industry partners as a faculty research lead with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), part of the College’s Research & Innovation division. 

In assisting these industry partners, Jacob and his students have performed efficacy trials on new beneficial insects and biopesticides and phytotoxicity trials on various products against root aphids. His team will next look at the negative impact of low humidity and high wind speed on parasitoid efficacy against cannabis aphids.

“My favourite research projects bridge students’ interest and engagement in experiential learning with new cutting-edge IPM technology solutions.

Currently, research is conducted in the College’s academic CannaBunker, built to house the Commercial Cannabis program in 2018. That research will advance further with the addition of AETIC’s new Cannabis Production Research Chamber (CannaResearchBunker).

The two retrofitted sea containers were installed at the Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake in spring, next to the CannaBunker. Once fully operational, the dedicated cannabis research facility, with state-of-the-art equipment, will enable the testing and utilization of sensors, unique lighting arrays, IPM strategies and other innovative concepts looking for commercial adoption. 

“About only one new beneficial insect comes to market every 10 years in North America. Niagara College students do research on candidates that could potentially revolutionize this industry.”

Indeed, the importance of IPM – and its research – for the cannabis industry can’t be overstated.

“It’s a primordial lifeline,” insists Jacob.

“Current regulations do not allow growers to use chemical pesticides (insecticide and fungicide alike), other than five dozen biopesticides, soap and oil products, so they mainly rely on IPM strategies,” he says. “This is a good thing as it’s a consumable product. Even though I do not use cannabis products, I prefer my fruit and vegetables free of chemical residues, don’t you?”

It’s important to realize, stresses Jacob, that protecting cannabis crops isn’t just about releasing a biological control agent. Rather, it’s having the specialized knowledge to institute a multidisciplinary system approach

The integrative approach involves starting clean, with attention on prevention: Cultural control (eg. proper sanitation, climate control, resistant varieties), physical control (eg. quarantine of incoming plant materials, plant removal, screening, mass trapping), biological control, chemical control and monitoring with good historical record keeping, he explains.

“You must have a plan with everyone in the facility involved and aware amongst departmental groups.” 

His most popular class phrase: “you must be ahead of the train at the station with your ticket, don’t run after it.”

Early establishment of the beneficial organisms (insects, fungi and bacteria) is also a key factor and supplementing the ‘good guy’ with alternate food sources when their prey is scarce is critical to build your army, he notes.

Then comes the time to react against sudden invaders. “Now one must wisely choose the correct curative actions in the correct order – inundation biological control, spraying – but also know the negative effects of each curative action on each organism in the system is of prime importance.”

By imparting such crucial understanding of these practices to his students, Jacob is setting them up to be better equipped than many in the cannabis industry.

Equally important is the unique opportunity for the students to work on trailblazing real-world research for the AETIC industry partners and learn about cutting-edge innovation.

“Students have their hands-on research projects and findings for which the industry, some of their future employer, has yet no idea,” explains Jacob. “About only one new beneficial insect comes to market every 10 years in North America. Niagara College students do research on candidates that could potentially revolutionize this industry.”

Looking back, Jacob says never for a minute did he think he’d now have the moniker “Pot Prof,” but he couldn’t be happier. 

“I am loving every moment mentoring my students and gain satisfaction in developing their skills and appetite for always learning more.”

Growing up in Drummondville, Quebec, he was always fascinated with observing creatures in nature and could spend countless hours with a stick in the mud. 

“My favourite TV show, other than Goldorack was National Geographic,” he remembers. “As I grew up, I hesitated a lot between studying for a career in either biology, engineering or teaching math. I chose biology as I can’t stand being only inside and need to go out in the wilderness.” 

Indeed, given his confessed obsession for ice/rock climbing and mountain biking, the great outdoors has always called him.

“I always liked to teach, mentor and coach either soccer or climbing. I worked as a researcher and IPM specialist my entire career, and destiny brought me on this new career path that bridges most of my passions,” he adds. 

Jacob lives in Fonthill with his one son and his wife (who also happens to be in the biz. She has a PhD in Entomology and is a research scientist in biological control and IPM.) 

He is a dedicated soccer coach and also plays the sport. And he still climbs every chance he gets.