When Tim Dennehy gets frustrated about the Environmental Protection Agency, he starts talking about Oreo cookies and milk. He says if he believed Oreos could control insects, the EPA would force him to prove they weren't a threat.
"At this point, I don't know if that's an exaggeration," says Dennehy, who spent two years getting permits to test pheromones - non-toxic chemicals that insects produce to communicate - as an alternative to pesticides.He and pheromone expert Wendell Roelofs have devised a compound simulating the mating scent of female grape berry moths. Male moths attracted to plastic laced with the pheromone have trouble finding fertile females, preventing explosive growth of the bugs in a vineyard.
James Touhey, an EPA adviser, acknowledges that regulations for toxic pesticides are unnecessarily stringent for such non-toxic alternatives, but is confident that ways can be found to simplify the process. He says cookies and milk used as pesticides could get a waiver from tests, "but I get the point."
About 250 pheromones have been identified since their discovery in 1959, and some are in use, says Richard Ridgway, head of the Insect Chemical Ecology Laboratory at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. One controls boll weevils and another the Oriental fruit moth on California peaches.
However, they never lived up to their early promise.