Inside View: September 2018
By Gary Jones
Dealing with pests? Sometimes less is more
By Gary Jones
So it’s finally happened. German drug and agrochemical company Bayer has bought US seed giant Monsanto in a deal worth around $66 billion US. No more Monsanto company name.
Syngenta, Bayer/Monsanto, Dow-DuPont and BASF control about 75 per cent of world agrochemicals and about 50 per cent of the world seed market (Monsanto alone controlled 23 per cent). How we got to this point of vulnerability as a society is an interesting question, but one for another day perhaps.
Such a monumental shift in the landscape of suppliers to the food industry has caused some to question a number of potential ramifications, not least the possibility of unfair competition, development of a monopoly, the real concern of loss of genetic diversity, and some would fear a significant increase in genetic engineering.
Whatever the big question(s), simply from environmental and financial perspectives, it behooves farmers and growers to be efficient with the chemicals (and seeds) they use. At this year’s Lower Mainland Horticulture Improvement Association (LMHIA) Short Course, Saber Miresmailli of ‘Ecoation Innovative Solutions Inc’ (based in North Vancouver, BC) gave a presentation entitled ‘Pinpointing Crop Stress at the Earliest Stage’. As per the program, the thrust of Saber’s talk was ‘using robots, artificial intelligence and plant defensive signals for early stage detection of pests, disease and deficiencies in greenhouse crops.’
Saber contends that IPM requires early pest or disease detection before intervention, but he then asks “What is early?” Fair question. As he says, humans look for visible signs or symptoms. However, this can be ‘late’. Perhaps too late. Cameras can make somewhat earlier detections, but best of all are the plants themselves. When under stress (from pests, diseases or even physiological causes), plants are known to give off volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) well before we can visually see any symptoms. If we can detect these VOC’s, it may give us an extra few days in which to take action, so reducing pest build up and consequential crop losses.
To be able to do this, Saber has developed a pair of robots that work as a team. The first carries a series of sensors that detect the VOC’s. This information is then processed and passed to the second robot which is an automated treatment system. The system is designed to operate either outdoors or inside a greenhouse on the heating pipe-rail system, and night-time operation has also been developed. Not only can it detect insect or fungal pathogen issues, it can also identify poor crop work practices as evidenced by (for example) broken trusses on tomatoes, nutrient deficiencies and degrees of fruit ripeness (colour). Perhaps of even more significance, the detection system is capable of identifying plant virus issues. Whatever the information, all data can be logged into a database while building a map of all the locations of such plant stress, enabling growers to have early warning of possible problem areas next growing season.
Back to the beginning. The Big Four agrochemical companies (any agrochemical company in fact) love it when you buy more of their products. It’s only natural (or is it synthetic?) that a ‘for-profit’ company would do that. After all, that’s why they’re in business. But you the grower, need to look after your own pocket book. You don’t need anyone to tell you that, sorry. Innovative products like those being developed by Dr. Miresmailli and his team that help you reduce the amount of chemicals you use on your crops, or at least help make them more effective by being applied earlier, are therefore worthy of further consideration. Long term, maybe early enough detection of plant stress may make it possible to intervene completely without the use of pesticides at all if it enables better efficacy of biological control agents, cultural or physical interventions or other physiological treatments. Access to Monsanto’s 23 per cent global market share of seeds is ultimately perhaps the long-term prize that Bayer needs. Time will tell how this mega-company will pan out. But I’d keep an eye on the small innovative companies like that of Dr. Miresmailli and see the impact they can have.
Gary Jones is co-chair of Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, BC. He sits on several industry committees and welcomes comments at Gary.Jones@kpu.ca.