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6 major issues threaten the future of crop disease management

United Soybean Board spraying-soybean-field-USB
Some changes may be fleeting, but other changes could have significant and long-lasting impact on production agriculture.

Changes are occurring throughout agriculture today, and these changes could profoundly affect pest management. 

Some changes may be fleeting, as in the reported shortage of cholothalonil.  Other changes could have significant and long-lasting impact on production agriculture, as in the recent merger of Dow AgroSciences and DuPont and the increasing role of FMC in development of pest control products.  The anticipated sale of Monsanto to Bayer Cropsciences and subsequent divestment of important assets to BASF has been watched warily by growers here and across the world as such change is tightly coupled with uncertainty.

For better or worse, changes are affecting agriculture today. 

“The only thing constant is change.”  Many of us have heard this quote, though few know anything about Hereclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived more than 2,500 years ago. The life of Heraclitus had little to do with agriculture; it is reported that in his later years he was at odds with all of humanity and roamed the countryside eating grass and herbs.  Still his view on change aptly describes the reality of agriculture, and perhaps life, today.  Given that change is inevitable, I encourage growers to find ways to exploit change in ways that can improve their profitability and to develop strategies to manage changes that could hurt their production.

My career in management of peanut diseases began in 1994. Bravo was the most widely used fungicide on the market; Benlate had long since been abandoned because of resistance issues. Folicur was new to farmers and Moncut and Abound were set to be labeled and released.  Companies at the time included Bayer, Novartis, Rhone Poulenc, Zeneca and Aventis, among many others.  Twenty-four years later, disease management among growers has changed in a number of ways.  

Though the number of companies has continued to dwindle, the number of fungicides in our arsenal has continued to expand.  However, the true impact of this “expanded arsenal” can be deceiving.  In the past quarter-century, row-crop farmers have many new products with which to treat their fields; however nearly 100 percent of the new fungicides belong to the same chemical classes available in 1995:  the triazoles, the SDHI/carboximides, and the strobilurins.  Continued use of these fungicides, especially triazoles and strobilurins, has led to documented cases of resistance in peanut, soybean and other crops. 

According to one of my close colleagues, development of new fungicides is extremely difficult and requires screening of hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds and investment of hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade to be able to successfully launch a new product.  Despite the fact that newer fungicides are increasingly effective in management of diseases, discovery of new modes of action has been elusive, though there have been some exciting and unexpected advances in disease and nematode control; for example the development of fluopyram (Velum) to fill the void when Temik was no longer available

Below are the six biggest issues that I believe will affect disease and nematode management in the next 50 years, changes that will continue to put pressure on growers to be better and better at growing crops and managing their resources.

  1. Changes in demographics and loss of cropland. As more people live in urban environments, fewer people will understand just how hard it is to grow a crop and how important a diversified set of tools is to manage pests. Loss of cropland will make effective rotation more difficult and encroaching suburban sprawl will lead to more complaints about the dust and smells of production and the presence of tractors on the roadways.
  2. Fungicide resistance is an increasing threat to growers. As discovery of new modes of action remains elusive and growers are tempted to hedge on sound resistance management programs as products become less expensive as generic formulations, the potential to lose entire classes of fungicides becomes an ever-increasing threat.
  3. Continued merger of companies committed to discovery of new pest management products could seriously affect the opportunity to find and bring new products to market. Whether the vast majority of the American public realizes it or not, we owe a great deal of gratitude not only to farmers but also to professionals working at companies bringing tools to protect our crops from harmful pathogens and significant losses.
  4. The future of plant breeding and development of transgenic varieties are significant issues. There is an ever-increasing need for better, higher-yielding, disease-resistant varieties and the role of transgenic technologies must be an important part of the solution.
  5. The threat of a changing climate could also put greater disease and pressure on a crop.
  6. Lastly, I believe that changes must occur in our ability to attract a new generation to agriculture as a profession and as a career.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find talented, successful students who want to study agriculture, much less go into farming.  The future of agriculture in the United States and in the world requires that we recruit some of the best and the brightest to agriculture.

Change is inevitable and may make us uncomfortable.  However, change also provides opportunity for advancements.  Perhaps my favorite quote about change comes from my friend and colleague, Dr. Philip Roberts, who tells me that, “If we always do what we have always done, then we will always get what we always got.”  Amen, Philip, amen.

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