Crop protection chemistry remains the most important tool available to a farmer to control weeds, diseases, and insect pests. But innovation — creating more effective products that meet economical and sustainability guidelines — will be essential to meet the food and fiber demands in 30 years, says Tyler Harp, technical development lead for Syngenta Crop Protection.
Speaking at the Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference at Bryan, Texas, he said the industry can do a better job of informing the public about how important innovations in agriculture are to food production. “We need innovation. We will feed more people on less quality farmland.”
By the time he finished his 30-minute presentation, Harp said, another 3,600 people would be alive, and “Crop protection products will be necessary to produce food and fiber for the growing population.”
Innovation has improved productivity and environmental security. “We are often applying two low rate applications of chemicals to manage pests. Ten years ago, we were using many more applications at high rates. In the last 50 years to 60 years, we’ve doubled yields of key crops (wheat, corn, maize, soybeans, rice, and potatoes), but we still have room for improvement to increase production.”
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Looking at crop protection from a different perspective, Harp says, offers new possibilities. Abiotic stress, for instance (heat, cold, drought) results in significant crop losses, as much as $140 billion annually. And biotic stresses (insects, diseases, weeds) make abiotic stress more severe.
Industry is looking at both sides to develop products that allow crops to meet production potential. Genetics, Harp says, plays a role. Genetically engineered crops offer pest and specific herbicide tolerance. Some varieties offer varying levels of tolerance. “Some have high levels of tolerance to specific pests; some have low tolerance, and some land in the middle.”
Combining chemistry with genetics, he says, offers producers options to control pests effectively. “Crop protection chemistry is the most effective tool producers have to control weeds, insects, and diseases. But we need more modes of action.”
The parameters for new chemistry will be different from the past. New products will be safe on the environment, cost-effective, easy to use, available to formulate, and will have a low acute and developmental toxicity. “Pest resistance remains a challenge,” he says.
The industry faces significant challenges in creating new chemistry, he notes. “We have huge investments in cost and time. A new product costs $250 million and ten years to get to market, “and a lot don’t make it that far. The registration process is long and thorough. Pharmaceuticals don’t get as much scrutiny as agricultural chemicals.”
Harp admits that the industry “is not very good at creating new chemistry. We produce from just one to four new fungicides every decade.”
Innovations in the way companies target plant pests is changing, he says. “Innovation, by design, will provide new tools, develop new molecules, and allow for optimization of products to enhance plant performance.”
Products can be designed to target a specific problem — nematodes, a hard-to-control disease, or to protect pollinators. Research identifies problems and then “we go to the lab to find answers.”
Solatenol, for example, is a material that interacts with a plant leaf to bind it and make it last significantly longer. “We can add from seven days to 14 days of control,” he says. The technology can target specific problems, fusarium or nematodes, for instance.
COMMITTED TO SUSTAINABILITY
“We are committed to sustainable agriculture,” Harp says. “We want to create a system to produce food and conserve biodiversity, conserve soil, maintain water quality, avoid deforestation, protect the health and safety of communities, and protect the economic viability of the farm.
“We are developing a whole farm approach in innovation and with digital communication.”
Innovative products are specialized, he says. “We have the ability now with a lot of our tools to ensure that we can continue to put these pieces together — sort of a one plus one equals three scenario — to make sure we're maximizing the value of these tools for the grower.
Agronomic stewardship and sustainability are important parts of the system. “At the end of the day, we believe good agronomy is the solution, and the secret to a good sustainable farm. It's going to be a way growers can maximize the value of their farms.”