The future: Biologicals in the crop protection industry, a good tool that will require farm management

From the first ancient farmers in Egypt to the modern farmers worldwide, they have all had one thing in common – the need to control weeds. They used different methods. The original farmers used certain plant species to control weeds, and that was a good idea. But with larger fields, this ancient method became obsolete.

In modern agriculture, synthetic chemicals became the chosen tool. It is interesting that biologicals, in many ways, are a return to ancient agriculture. Biotechnology is the tool used to develop natural active ingredients for the crop protection industry. We no longer need to cultivate specific plant species in the border of crops to control weeds. Today, we use natural molecules from different biological sources. It is like a 2.0 version of the original farmers in Egypt.

The source of natural molecules comes from the original (and ancient) plant-to-plant interactions to control weeds. Additionally, natural molecules come from fungus and bacteria – something that would have amazed an ancient Egyptian farmer.

This is a return to the source with a biotechnology “touch” to improve our efficacy in pest control while we care for the environment. Synthetic active ingredients bring control of pests and high levels of production to our crop protection era. However, non-desirable effects have also been observed, such as weeds resistant to many chemicals.

Today, there is an open question about how we can kill those resistant weeds to protect our crops. Biologicals with new modes of action may be the answer while also caring for the environment. In addition to this approach, we have seen in our lab that many different weak active ingredients with different modes of action are suitable for weed control, but they are not practical in the field yet.

If we agree that what nature builds, nature can also destroy, then biologicals may have an answer to environmental questions about protecting the wild while using biological agrochemicals to control pests. However, if we apply tons of natural chemicals to control weeds in the field, non-desirable secondary effects may appear. What are they? Well, if we use them with no control, we may end up feeding different organisms with natural chemicals. We know what happens if we apply tons of the same chemical to the field every year – we increase the population of an organism that resists this chemical, such as the weed resistant to glyphosate.

Management in crop protection seems to be an important hidden tool in the biological area to avoid the problems observed with synthetic chemicals. We have to learn from the glyphosate-synthetic era that too much of one thing is not good.

Perhaps a poorly represented bacterium or fungus in the soil may grow in the presence of a natural chemical. Alternatively, a bacterium or fungus may be inhibited with a natural chemical, causing the non-desirable organism to grow because the natural control is killed. Then, we must expect secondary effects from natural chemicals if we use them without control. Fortunately, once the hungry population of microorganisms in the soil eats the biologicals, it goes back to the previous level. At least, that is what is expected to happen.

What is true is that many of the problems originating from synthetic chemicals may be avoided with biologicals. However, the production levels using natural chemicals must be the same or higher at the same costs. Will biologicals cover this expectation? It seems they will. In the market today, we can find many fungicides and insecticides with good results. But efficient (cost-effective) herbicides seem harder to find. In our lab, we are working with plants as natural sources to control weeds. We found a systemic plant extract that kills weeds with just one application. We used to call this particular plant extract “glyphosate looks like” because the effect.

About the author:

Gustavo Sosa

Founder and Scientific Director at INBIOAR-Global (BVI) LTD & INBIOAR SAS