Commercial opportunities for pesticides based on plant essential oils in agriculture, industry and consumer products


In spite of intensive research on plant natural products and insect-plant chemical interactions over the past three decades, only two new types of botanical insecticides have been commercialized with any success in the past 15 years, those based on neem seed extracts (azadirachtin), and those based on plant essential oils. Certain plant essential oils, obtained through steam distillation and rich in mono- and sesquiterpenes and related phenols, are widely used in the flavouring and fragrance industries and in aromatherapy. Some aromatic plants have traditionally been used for stored product protection, but the potential for development of pesticides from plant essential oils for use in a wide range of pest management applications has only recently been realized. Many plant essential oils and their major terpenoid constituents are neurotoxic to insects and mites and behaviourally active at sublethal concentrations. Most plant essential oils are complex mixtures. In our laboratory we have demonstrated that individual constituents of oils rarely account for a major share of the respective oil’s toxicity. Further, our results suggest synergy among constituents, including among those that appear non-toxic in isolation. Repellent effects may be particularly useful in applications against public health and domestic pests, but may be useful in specific agricultural applications as well. In all of these applications, there is a premium on human and animal safety that takes priority over absolute efficacy. In agriculture, the main market niche for essential oil-based pesticides is in organic food production, at least in developed countries, where there are fewer competing pest management products. There is also scope for mixing these oils with conventional insecticides and for enhancing their efficacy with natural synergists. Some examples of field efficacy against agricultural pests are discussed.

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We thank Nancy Brard and Rita Seffrin for insect rearing and/or technical assistance with some of the studies described here. Research by the authors described in this review has been generously supported by EcoSMART Technologies Inc., Ecosafe Natural Products Inc., the BC Greenhouse Growers Association, the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC, MITACS Accelerate BC, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Murray B. Isman.

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Isman, M.B., Miresmailli, S. & Machial, C. Commercial opportunities for pesticides based on plant essential oils in agriculture, industry and consumer products. Phytochem Rev 10, 197–204 (2011).

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  • Plant essential oils
  • Natural pesticides
  • Insect repellents
  • Pest management