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Commentary: Dealing with Our Chemical Dependency 


It is field day and outdoor farm show time, events that provide a first-hand look at how new products and crop production technology work in actual field environments. At these events, new products that are not yet on the market are also on display.  For the past several decades, this has included new chemistry designed to help growers deal with weeds, insects, and soil fertility. This year at several field days I attended, I detected a subtle change in the message from different companies.

While there are several new active ingredients and a variety of new molecular combinations that will be approved for 2019 along with promises of more products coming down the research pipeline, there was an additional caveat: chemistry alone is not enough. Companies have lulled growers into thinking crop protection was cheap and easy for a long time. Just spray it or stack the traits to control your problems and boost your yields.  When the chemistry started not working so well, we just increased the rates or developed stronger formulas.  Now companies and farmers are coming to the realization that more is needed.

That more does not involve more chemistry but what is being called “cultural practices.” What are cultural practices? According to several agronomists I spoke with, cultural practices involve things like knowing what weeds you actually have,  rotating crops for agronomic, not just economic reasons, using some mechanical means to control weeds, and adjusting hybrid choices to address weed and insect issues not just yield.  In short, it involves farming the way grandpa did.

This is not to say it is time to return to the 1920s, but rather that modern technology in combination with long-proven farming practices will be needed in the future.  University research, along with the real-life experiences of many growers, is showing nature’s ability to develop resistance is outpacing our ability to develop new chemical products. One company official was frighteningly candid in his prediction that, without some changes, we could lose the ability to control a major yield-robbing weed in the next 6 years.

Meanwhile, societal pressures are threatening to limit the use of the tools we do have.  The EPA is considering new regulations on dicamba products. A jury in California has ruled glyphosate causes cancer.  Radical environmental groups are continually pressing for more and more restrictive regulations and the outright banning of many agricultural products.  Yet, there are some developments that provide a reason for hope.

New products that use biology rather than chemistry are showing promise.  This represents an approach that works with nature rather than against it to enhance plant health, improve soil fertility, and reduce or limit the effects of weeds and insects. Here again, this is not a silver bullet that will solve all our problems. But in combination with current, new, and old farming practices, it may be the key to future.

So don’t sell your sprayer, but consider changes you can make to become less chemically dependent and take a more holistic and inclusive approach to crop protection. Chances are you will find your chemical provider more than willing to work with you to shepherd the chemistry we have today and will have tomorrow.

  By Gary Truitt