Green tea is not often mentioned in the same breath as pesticide. But NDSU sophomore Dre Steinwehr made a connection between the two, and the results won him $1,000 at the Innovation Challenge – and a product that has the attention of local farmers.

Steinwehr has been searching for an all-natural alternative to conventional pesticides since his involvement with science fairs in high school. Having grown up in the small farming community of Hankinson, ND, with a grandfather who farms, he’s always had an interest in agriculture – particularly organic farming. The problem he saw is that there are little to no options for organic pest control.

Tea-based pesticide

Tea-based pesticide creator, Dre Steinwehr.

“The problem with organic farming is you can’t typically combat pests,” Steinwehr said. “You’re at a loss of money there. I wanted to find something that worked just as well as those pesticides with [conventional] chemicals, but could be used for organic farming.”

Green tea caught his eye for its high level of phenols, which are also a part of a plant’s natural defense system. Using extracts of green tea, he was able to apply the high levels of phenol compound to his pesticide. His hope was to create something that would fight off insect and fungal pests just as well as conventional chemicals can.

Green tea-based pesticide to the test

Testing the effectiveness of the green tea-based pesticide was a two-fold process. He started with a field test; planting a bunch of corn, and then treating it with conventional chemical-based pesticide alongside the tea-based pesticide. Then he grew the corn, harvested, and calculated the yields.

“From the yields, I saw that the green tea had the highest yield compared to other solutions,” he said.

For the second half, he took the pesticide to the lab and compared its effectiveness on insects against the effectiveness of conventional pesticide. The two, he found, were equally as effective. He also got equal results when checking the corn for micro-toxins, which are an indicator of fungi.

So, in the end, his tea-based pesticide was just as effective as the conventional synthetic chemical-based pesticide and in fact had a higher yield. Seeing those results, Steinwehr said, was a big relief.

“It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack, and then you find it,” he said.

Tea-based pesticide wins second prize

He presented his tea-based pesticide research at NDSU’s 2014-15 Innovation Challenge as his project titled Tea Time, and landed second place in the Corn Track. His report got him some attention from the local Corn Grower’s Association as well, although he’s unsure now if he will move forward with it, he said.

Dre Steinwehr

Steinwehr accepts his award at the Innovation Challenge on Feb. 26

Steinwehr is currently pursuing a major in microbiology and is focusing on his plans to go to med school in the future, and remains unsure how much he can commit to further research towards Tea Time. However, he does hope to see an influx of products for organic farming.

“Organic farming is an area that needs attention, and needs product developed for them,” he said. “It would be nice to get [the tea-based pesticide] used alongside competitors. It would show that it’s an effective product and that the idea worked.”

Photo courtesy of Dre Steinwehr

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Marisa Jackels