Rising Challengers

Published online: May 04, 2021 Articles Patrice Sellès & Tyrell Marchant
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This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Climate change is far from a new topic of conversation. It has been discussed and debated ad nauseam over the last couple decades. But putting aside the politics of it all, the fact remains that farmers in many parts of the world are having to find new ways to deal with the effects of changing environments in their growing regions.

Warming climates are inviting new insect pests. Wetter climates are creating an opportunity for new fungi to gain a foothold. These and other relatively new issues have the potential to ravage crops and interrupt the food supply chain. Speeding up innovation pipelines in the agriculture sector can help growers prepare for just such a problem arising on their own farms.

New Problems, New Places

Many studies have demonstrated that changes in climate — particularly increases in temperature and rainfall — can have a significant impact on the population size, survival rate (i.e., in milder winter conditions) and geographic extension of pests and diseases. In addition, rising of CO2 levels can weaken the natural defenses of plants, making them more susceptible to already locally existing pests and disease.

Climate change has the potential to impact all crops in a given region. This includes nearly every crop and locale in the U.S., from coast to coast and border to border; from potatoes, sugarbeets and wheat in northern climes, to cotton, sweet potatoes and vegetables in the South.

Tar spot is a recent example of fungal disease, usually seen in tropical climates. Tar spot was first reported in the Corn Belt in 2015, and has spread to many states since then.

What Can We Do?

Farmers are becoming increasingly dependent on monitoring and global surveillance systems to identify the progression of certain threats. This allows them to adapt their cultural practices and become more agile in responding to both climatic and pest evolution. Growers need the right tools as well as a broad range of solutions to address new threats in a timely manner. Agrochemical and ag tech companies, as well as many in academia, are trying to help provide growers with those necessary tools.

The first step, undertaken properly via extensive collaboration, is to understand the nature and the evolutions of the threats, be they fungal pathogens, chewing insect pests, vector-borne viruses or drought. A number of academic groups universities have developed and are currently developing models — creating scientific rationale to understand how and where these new threats are likely to have the biggest impact, as well as to forecast the level of severity of each.

With major consolidation in the agrochemical sector, innovation in ag tech is today scattered in a vast range of small and medium-sized companies. These companies offer digital tools such as sensors, data management, AI, drones, robots and novel solutions for monitoring and scouting. They are working to provide new protective solutions for our food that will complement existing modes of action, providing growers with ammunition to limit the impact of fungal and insect pests as well as managing the resistance of these threats against existing solutions.

A Team Effort

Growers are indeed facing on one hand the pressure from consumers to provide high-quality, safe and sustainable food, and on the other hand, the lack and decrease of accepted conventional solutions to protect the crops they grow. Regulation in many states and countries is becoming ever more stringent regarding the use of certain agrochemical solutions.

Innovation is the first answer. It is incumbent upon the agrochemical and ag tech sectors to provide growers with alternative solutions that protect the crops they grow while also addressing the needs for residue-free, safe and sustainable food. Moreover, these solutions need to be safe for growers and field workers as well as for the ecosystems in which they are used. Many other innovations — such as robots, digitalization and gene editing — will have to be part of the solution to minimize the amount of input required and maximize the output in quality and quantity for growers.

The second answer lies with the consumers. Consumers must understand that the food on their plates every day is not a given, and that it is necessary to protect this food so that at every step from the field to the plate, loss and waste is limited. The agriculture industry has a responsibility to educate consumers on what it takes to get food to their plates, and the steps farmers and others in the supply chain are taking to ensure a safe, sustainable food supply With a growing population and the looming specter of climate change, it is time to better protect the food we already produce and to do all we can to eliminate inefficiencies in our food production system.

 

Patrice Sellès is the CEO of Biotalys, an innovative biocontrol company focused on developing cutting-edge protein-based biocontrols that effectively protect crops while keeping the environment, farmer and consumer safe. Sellès has over 20 years of experience in the ag and food tech industry.