Integrating Technologies to Minimize Environmental Impacts

Laura L. McConnell,* Iain D. Kelly and Russell L. Jones


Historically, synthetic agrochemicals have had a central role in increasing yields in agricultural production. Assessment methods and approaches towards monitoring and addressing the environmental impact of the technology were relatively simple. Agricultural production, however, is in a period of rapid transformation. Research and Development companies are transforming their activities to provide a more holistic approach that provides producers with integrated solutions. These approaches encompass biotechnology, synthetic chemistry, biologicals and biopesticides, all disciplines that are integrated with improvements in application technology, digital farming and the use of big data. While these developments may raise new questions, they also provide unique opportunities to reduce potential environmental impacts. This chapter provides an overview of the changes occurring in the agricultural industry and highlights ways in which we might address their effects, while pointing out some of the barriers to adoption of new technologies.


1 Introduction

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 17 specific Sustainable Development Goals as a guide for global development designed to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.1 Sustainable Development Goal number 2 is to “end hunger, to achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030. At present, about 790 million people are undernourished;2 therefore, achieving this ambitious goal will require significant and rapid technological innovations in agricultural production systems across the world. Other UN goals, related to sustainable management of water and addressing climate change and its impacts, will also require major advances in agricultural technology in order to increase food production in a sustainable manner, while keeping pace with the demands of an expanding population.

The goal of ending hunger and achieving food security becomes more challenging considering that the current world population of 7.3 billion is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.3 In addition, global life expectancy is projected to increase from 70 to 77 years by 2045–2050. Developing countries are expected to have the greatest rate of population growth, and average food consumption in developing countries is projected to increase from 2005 levels of 2619 kcal person−1 day−1 to 3000 kcal by 2050.4 With increasing consumption, there is an increase in demand for a more diverse and protein-rich diet including meat, milk, eggs and vegetable oils. Currently approximately 12% of the land surface of the globe is used for crop production. Recent estimates indicate that up to 34% of the world's land surface could be used for agriculture, although approximately 20% has been deemed marginal and unsuitable for rainfed agriculture. Therefore, careful management and protection of the most productive agricultural lands will be required, along with novel approaches to achieving increased production on marginal lands.

Climate change is expected to bring geographical changes in precipitation patterns and therefore will alter growing conditions and water availability in agricultural production regions both within the USA5 and across the world.6,7 Plant growth of both crops and weed species, will be affected by increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.8 While some agricultural regions may benefit from increased yields in a warming climate, northward expansion of insect pests and weed species is already being observed. Climate change will bring about additional challenges such as a general increase in extreme weather events which can damage crops and food distribution networks, a growing risk of food-borne illnesses and rising tropospheric ozone concentrations, resulting in damage to crop yields.9,10

With increasing population and a warming climate, additional factors will also influence the global availability of food, possibly leading to water scarcity and decreased water quality. Approximately 70% of global freshwater consumed is used in agriculture.11 While domestic wastewater can be recycled, much of the water used in crop production is either incorporated into biomass or is transpired. As incomes in developing countries increase, greater demand for meat and dairy products will require more water for production compared with staple crops; it is estimated that agricultural production will need to grow by 60% by 2050 to keep up with this demand. Increased production on the same limited land resources will likely require a greater portion of cropland under irrigation, leading to increased water scarcity and the potential for decreased water quality. If increasing demand for food cannot be met with increasing yields, then more marginal lands will be pushed into food production, reducing habitats for native plants and animals along with other ecosystem services that these lands currently provide. This chapter seeks to summarize recent and emerging trends in the crop protection industry, to discuss the challenges facing the industry, the role of regulation in new technology development and recommendations on finding a way forward towards increased production and improved sustainability in agriculture.

2 Developments and Emerging Trends in the Crop Protection Industry

Over the last approximately 70 years, yield increases, particularly in the developed countries, have been significant. In the USA, for example, soybean yields have doubled and corn yields have increased by a factor of four, leading to increases in farm total factor productivity of 1.47% per year from 1948 to 2013.12 Much of this improvement was achieved through the use of more efficient and automated machinery, improved seed varieties and agricultural chemicals, including fertilizers and pesticides and, most significantly, herbicides. Increased yields have lowered the cost of commodities and have resulted in a more abundant food supply, while publicly and privately funded agricultural research has contributed to innovations and new technologies.

The pesticide consumption index in the USA increased steadily from 1960 to the mid-1990s but has now leveled off and begun to decline, while the total farm output has continued to increase (Figure 1).12 This leveling off of pesticide use coincided with the introduction of new genetic traits into the market, beginning around 1996 (Figure 2).13 Herbicide-tolerant soybeans achieved more than 80% adoption in the marketplace by 2003; use of herbicide-tolerant cotton increased more slowly but exceeded 80% by 2012. Insecticide-tolerant cotton, or Bt cotton, contains the gene from a soil bacterium named Bacillus thuringiensis, and produces a protein that is toxic to certain insect pests. Bt cotton use has increased to 84% of all acres of cotton planted, as of 2014.

Fig. 1 Comparison of trends in pesticide consumption index and total factor productivity of US farms from 1948 to 2013. Pesticide consumption indices are relative to use in Alabama in 1996=1. Values displayed are the sum of consumption index for 48 states. Source data: Ref. 12.
Fig. 2 Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the United States, 1996 to 2015. HT=herbicide-tolerant crop, Bt=insect resistant crop containing the gene from Bacillus thuringiensis. Source data and figure adapted from ref. 13.

Public investments in agricultural research, however, have slowed in recent years while private sector research and development has grown rapidly.14 Continued investments from both public and private sources will be required to achieve the increases in agricultural productivity required to meet global food demand. Within the private sector, the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing population in a period of changing environmental conditions will be accomplished by a much different industry, under the scrutiny of a civil society with near-universal access to smart phone technology, information and commentaries. Some have recently proposed that the global economy is entering a fourth industrial revolution, leading to extreme automation and connectivity.15 At a recent World Economic Forum, a new report on the Future of Jobs was published, describing changes in the economy expected by 2020:

We are today at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and genetics and biotechnology are all building on and amplifying one another. Smart systems—homes, factories, farms, grids or entire cities—will help tackle problems ranging from supply chain management to climate change. Concurrent to this technological revolution are a set of broader socioeconomic, geopolitical and demographic developments, with nearly equivalent impact to the technological factors.”16

The effects of these changes in economic forces are already evident in the structure of the agrochemical industry as it enters a period of faster consolidation and more diverse acquisition. In the period 1998–2002 the industry had a significant consolidation as the ten major research and development companies merged to create six (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Dupont, Dow AgroSciences and BASF),17 each with total sales of over €5 million in 2014 (Figure 3). As the figure shows, within these six companies there was a clear differentiation in the size of the agrochemicals business compared to the seed business. Monsanto and DuPont have greater than 50% of their sales in seeds while in Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience, agrochemicals predominate. BASF focused primarily on agrochemicals.

Fig. 3 Estimated total sales of agrochemicals and seeds in 2014 for major crop protection companies (million euros) excluding non-agricultural business. Estimates based on company publications and Bayer CropScience internal market research.

The last five years have seen considerable acquisitions and penetration by the major agrochemical companies into the area of agricultural biologicals. In 2012 alone, Bayer acquired AgraQuest, Inc., Monsanto announced its BioDirect™ technology platform, BASF acquired Becker Underwood, Inc., and Syngenta acquired Pasteuria Bioscience, Inc. as each of these companies strengthened their position in this promising new area of agricultural technology. Definitions of the term “biologicals” vary but generally encompass microbials, plant extracts or other organic material, and beneficial insects that can be used to control pests and diseases or stimulate crop efficiency. The variation in definition of the market makes its size difficult to measure but one estimate put the market at approximately $3 billion, which included biopesticides at an estimated $2 billion and biostimulants around $1 billion, with the potential for continuing double-digit growth throughout the decade.18

Another emerging area related to the increase in global connectivity that has seen acquisition by the major agrochemical companies is precision agriculture, enhanced by digital farming technologies. The most notable of these was the acquisition of The Climate Corporation by Monsanto in 2013. This purchase signaled the importance that ready access to real-time field data will have to the grower of the future. Advanced analytics, synthesizing local conditions including soil type, weather patterns, crop varieties and patterns of disease outbreaks and insect infestation will all be amongst the decision-making tools available to growers in their efforts to maximize productivity. Approaches to data access, data ownership and data security will be an integral part of the implementation and success of these developments, and equipment manufacturers are a key link in this digital development. Self-driving, highly computerized planters, sprayers and harvesters are either available now or in development, with the ability to respond in real-time to satellite, drone and ground-based robots. In 2015, Deere & Company agreed to acquire the Precision Planting, LLC equipment business from Monsanto's Climate Corporation Subsidiary to enable exclusive, near real-time data connectivity between certain John Deere farm equipment and the Climate FieldView™ platform as part of the innovation alignment within this section of the industry. In related activities, Bayer CropScience has recently acquired proPlant, Inc., and Syngenta has acquired Ag Connections, LLC.

Major factors that are impacting the future of the crop protection industry are the enormous cost of product development and challenges of increasing regulatory hurdles. The cost of development of a new agrochemical is currently estimated at approximately $290 million, with 11 years from discovery to commercialization,19 while a new plant biotechnology trait costs approximately $135 million, with 12 to 16 years from lab to commercialization.20 Clearly, in a few years the appearance of the industry will be very different from today and is likely to be more far-reaching than the developments that occurred at around the millennium. Consolidation within the large research and development companies will be accompanied by venture capital and niche market investments as new and potentially disruptive technologies continue to evolve.

3 Improving the Sustainability of Crop Production

Since the introduction of synthetic chemicals as a key contributor in protecting plants and increasing yields, concerns have been raised about potential environmental impacts. Assessing and reducing these impacts has been a multidimensional process and the pace only increases as agronomy continues to encompass new scientific disciplines and technology. Some of these will be expanded upon later in this book but an overview is provided here.

3.1 Improved Properties of Synthetic Pesticides

While pesticide use has increased over time, the properties of pesticide products have evolved to minimize their risks to humans and wildlife. Two basic trends in new compounds have occurred over the past 2 to 3 decades: new compounds are designed with more specific modes of action, which tend to limit effects to specific taxa, and are more highly active, facilitating lower use rates. While potential environmental effects can be similar for a sensitive species with compounds with broad or more specific modes of action, fewer species are at risk from compounds with specific modes of action. In the insecticide area, for example, the use of the non-specific acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors (organophosphates and carbamates) was 51% in 1999. Together, the AChE inhibitors and those insecticides acting on the voltage-gated sodium channel (vgSCh), in particular the pyrethroids, accounted for approx. 70% of the world market.21 By 2012, AChE-inhibitor use had dropped much further to 19%, while pyrethroids had remained relatively constant at 17% and neonicotinoid use (introduced in the 1990s) had risen to 24% to become the major classes of insecticides.22 Both the neonicotinoid and pyrethroid classes of insecticides have modes of action which are highly toxic to insects, but have low mammalian and avian toxicity compared to organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. Risk mitigation strategies can, therefore, be much more targeted, generally focusing on aquatic species for pyrethroids and pollinator species for neonicotinoids. Furthermore, use-rates in the 1980s were typically 1–10 kg ha−1, while many compounds today are applied at rates less than 1 kg ha−1 and average application rates of some sulfonylureas are as low as a few grams per hectare.23

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service conducted an exhaustive analysis of pesticide use on 21 crops from 1960 to 2008 and examined changes over time in environmentally relevant characteristics of pesticides on the market (Figure 4).24 The most dramatic trend observed was the decline in toxicity to humans, but declines in average annual application rate and persistence were also observed. Declines in pesticide consumption have also been accompanied by major changes in application techniques, as well as stewardship efforts (e.g. integrated pest management, nutrient management and conservation agriculture) to maintain the sustainability of changing agricultural processes.

Fig. 4 Average quality characteristics of pesticides applied to four major crops, 1968 to 2008, where Rate is the pounds of active ingredient applied per acre in one application times the number of applications per year; Toxicity is defined as the inverse of the water quality threshold in parts per billion, serving as an environmental risk indicator for humans from drinking water; and Persistence is the share of pesticide products in use with soil half-life less than 60 days. Source data and figure adapted from ref. 24.

3.2 Emerging Technologies

3.2.1 Genetic Engineering

This technology encompasses Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) produced by recombinant DNA techniques and, more recently, techniques such as gene editing and RNA interference (RNAi). As was mentioned in Section 2, the overall rate of pesticide use in the USA has leveled off with the rapid adoption of GMO crops in the late-1990s, while farm productivity has continued to increase (Figure 1). Initially a single gene was inserted, producing herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant plants. The technology has been very effective and has fundamentally changed farming practices in many parts of the world. However, the broad acceptance of the glyphosate-tolerant trait, coupled with use of the non-specific herbicide glyphosate, has, unfortunately, led to the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weed species.25 Herbicide-tolerant and insecticide-resistant traits can now be stacked in cotton and in corn, and use of these stacked trait varieties has increased over time.13 With these advanced GMOs, insecticide applications can be minimized and herbicide applications more targeted when weed pest pressure increases. Efforts are underway in academic, industry and government scientific circles to track weed resistance26 and to increase stewardship programs to educate farmers on how to manage resistance.27 Adoption of GMO crops has also led to increased adoption of conservation tillage practices, leading to beneficial effects on soil and water quality.28

Further advances in the technology are focusing on output traits which, for example, enhance yield, confer drought resistance, enhance nitrogen-use efficiency and confer desirable quality properties on the crop. An early entry into this field was the so-called “golden rice” engineered to produce β-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, as well as an increased dose of absorbable iron.29,30 Modified animals in our food supply are also being approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). For example, the AquAdvantage Salmon, which grows to market size more quickly than non-genetically engineered salmon, was approved by the USFDA in 2015.31 Other potential developments from genomics include improved food safety (i.e. microbial contamination and allergen detection), edible vaccines and therapeutic monoclonal antibodies produced from plants.32

More recently, targeted technologies have been developed that have the potential for site-specific gene modification. These include site-directed zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) and transcription activator-like (TAL)-effector nucleases (TALENs). A recent entry into this field is CRISPR-Cas9, which is showing promise as a facile method of targeting specific genes.33 An alternative technology is RNAi, whereby RNA molecules are used to downregulate the expression of genes.34 An interesting aspect of RNAi is that, while it can be incorporated and expressed in the plant, it can be sprayed directly onto the plant as a biological.35 The potential of this new area of research is enormous for numerous industries. Ideal products would be highly specific to certain insect pests while protecting beneficial organisms. It is also being envisaged that RNAi could be used to increase the nutritional value of certain crops or to limit the accumulation of allergenic proteins.36

3.2.2 Agricultural Biologicals

Agricultural biologicals cover a broad range of products. Generally they are considered to include products derived from naturally occurring microorganisms, plant extracts or other organic matter, but can also include macroorganisms such as beneficial insects, mites and nematodes.37 They are typically separated into two major categories: biopesticides and biostimulants. Biopesticides include plant extracts, organic acids and semiochemicals (e.g. pheromones) and can also encompass such terms as natural product chemistry and secondary metabolites. Also included in this group are intact microbes (generally bacteria and fungi, but viruses, protozoans and yeasts also are being investigated). Biological products generally have multiple modes of action which make them resilient to resistance development. They are excellent tools in integrated pest management and are often used in conjunction with conventional crop protection products to reduce residues while maximizing yields. Biostimulants modify plant physiology to increase the vigor of the crop. They protect against abiotic stress; for example improving root establishment, facilitating the uptake of nutrients. Related to biostimulants are the biofertilizers, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which also increase plant vigor.

3.2.3 Organic Agriculture

Land in certified organic production accounted for about 1% of agricultural land globally in 2010, the year for which the most recent figures are available.38 While the current area of organic production is low, the demand for certified organic produce has increased to more than 4% of food sales in the USA.39 The USDA defines organic agriculture as “the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity”.40 Organic agriculture also provides for: “As a last resort, producers may work with their organic certifier to use an approved pesticide, such as naturally occurring microorganisms, insecticides naturally derived from plants, or one of a few approved synthetic substances”. Clearly there is a potential link between organic agriculture and biologicals, but not all biologicals are certified organic under the USDA National Organic Program. The impact of organic production and its role in addressing environmental impact will be dependent on its level of adoption. Overall organic yields have been shown to be lower than non-organic, while premiums for organic produce have to some extent offset this from a grower perspective.38,41 The final adoption will, therefore, be an economic balance between pressure on arable land, yields, and societal demands as food requirements continue to pressure land resources.

3.2.4 Waste Reduction Strategies

A frequently overlooked strategy in increasing the world food supply is the adoption of methods to reduce waste. It has been estimated42 that roughly one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons per year. These losses occur throughout the supply chain, starting from the initial phases of crop production through to consumption by the consumer. The source and magnitude of losses vary by region and country, with much more being lost in developed countries than in developing countries. The per capita figure for food wasted by consumers in Europe and North America is estimated42 at 95–115 kg year−1, while in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia it is only 6–11 kg year−1. In developed counties disposal of edible food by the consumer is a major factor, while in developing countries deficiencies in supply chain management, infrastructure and access to advanced agricultural technologies all contribute. In the United States alone, estimates are that 31% (133 billion pounds) of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels goes uneaten (2010 values).43 This has led to efforts such as the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency Deputy announcing, in late 2015, a national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030, largely through federal government-led partnerships with charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, the private sector and local, state and tribal governments.

3.3 Enhanced Application Technologies

3.3.1 Spray Drift Reduction Technology

Considerable advances in spray-drift-reduction technology, such as low-drift nozzles and application equipment, have been made in the last 2–3 decades.44 Progress has also been made in the development of drift-reduction agents and low-drift formulations; for example, Dow AgroSciences has introduced an herbicide product, Enlist Duo™, with 90% less drift than other formulations of the same herbicides. Significant progress has also been made in establishing guidelines for studies to measure spray drift; for example, ISO 22856:2008,45 and in modeling spray drift as a function of spray equipment and spray conditions.46 All of these improvements have helped reduce the amount of material moving away from the field and impacts on terrestrial and aquatic non-target organisms.

3.3.2 Seed Treatments

The use of seed treatments has dramatically increased in the past 2–3 decades. Prior to the 1980s, seed treatments were used primarily as disinfectants. In the 1980s the introduction of low-rate, highly effective systemic fungicides provided seedling protection from soil-borne fungi, e.g. triadimenol and metalaxyl, followed by the systemic insecticides in the 1990s, imidacloprid being the first which protected against both below-ground soil insects and early-season above-ground pests. Anti-nematode activity appeared in the 2000s with abermectin and the biological treatment VotiVo®.

Seed treatments provide protection for young plants, with less pesticide material than if applied as broadcast, banded or in-furrow treatments. A major advantage of seed treatments compared to broadcast applications is that the treated seed is typically located below the soil surface, significantly reducing runoff losses of crop protection chemicals to nearby terrestrial or aquatic environments outside the field.47 There are numerous additional benefits and uses of this technology. Improvements in the use of the technology continue to develop and progress has been made in the past few years in product formulations, application equipment and additives that reduce dust emissions during the planting of treated seed.48

Seed treatments have been associated recently with pollinator effects, although this is more of a function of the specific products used, since similar issues could occur with alternative application methods. Improved methodologies are being developed to assess the environmental risks to pollinators in general, including seed treatment.49 Systemic activity can be a positive for a soil-applied compound since it has no effect on insects that do not consume the leaves or other portions of a plant, leaving most beneficial insects unharmed.50

3.3.3 Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture uses a combination of geospatial information and sensors to optimize inputs to crops as a function of location in the field. Such an approach can increase yields by making certain that areas of the field benefiting from inputs (nutrients and crop protection products) receive them in the right quantities, while minimizing inputs by not applying a maximum rate required in one portion of the field to the entire field.51

Digital farming utilizes high-resolution geopositioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) to couple real-time data collection technology with accurate position information. Data collected from sensors mounted on satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to generate high-resolution imagery of crop fields and to automate nutrient and pesticide applications by farmers. Such an approach of minimizing inputs also reduces loss of nutrients and crop protection products in runoff and tile drains moving to nearby surface water bodies, thereby reducing potential effects on aquatic organisms. As mentioned earlier, enormous advances in digital farming technology are expected over the next few decades, providing seamless integration with farm equipment and leading to decreased use of fertilizers, pesticides and water resources while maximizing yields.

3.4 Better Land Management

3.4.1 No and Low Tillage

The use of no- and low-tillage has been heavily promoted for many years as a way of reducing the amount of soil moving off tilled fields during rainstorms and preventing impacts on aquatic organisms. In order to maintain a weed-free field, the weeds removed by tillage must be killed by herbicides. The lack of tillage helps promote infiltration of water (and nutrients and crop protection chemicals present in the water) reducing runoff as well as soil erosion. This practice was adopted for about 40% of combined corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton in the USA in 2010–11 (89 million acres per year)52 and contributed to the health of surface water bodies in this region. Globally, adoption rates of no-till vary by region, with the largest percentages found in South America at 47%, North America at 38%, Australia and New Zealand 12%, and much lower rates in other regions of the world.53

3.4.2 Increased use of Drainage Water Management

The number of fields in which tile drainage has been installed continues to increase. Tile drains are typically installed in fields with poor drainage to allow access to the field by farm equipment and to prevent damage to crops by standing water. Concerns exist regarding tile drains as a pathway for nutrient and pesticide movement to streams.54 However, drainage water management is now a USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service practice55 that can be used to increase yields by maintaining healthy soil moisture levels and to reduce off-site movement of nutrients, pathogen and pesticide residues. Water control structures function like underground dams that allow farmers to control the water level in the soil. During manure applications, for example, the drain outlet can be raised to minimize drainage and reduce nutrient and pathogen loading. During non-production periods, drainage management can be used in a manner beneficial to local wildlife. Combined with other conservation measures to reduce erosion, proper drainage management can improve water quality and increase protection of aquatic habitats.

3.4.3 Vegetative Buffer Strips

After the depression and dust bowl of the 1930s in the United States, vegetative buffer strips were encouraged as a way to prevent soil in fields moving into surface water bodies and also as a way of limiting movement of compounds tightly bound to this soil. Later, researchers began to realize that buffer strips could also be useful in removing compounds less strongly bound to soil.56,57 The USDA promotes vegetative buffer strips as a conservation measure for improving surface water quality, providing financial assistance to growers for their implementation.58 Considerable progress has been made in the past decade in estimating the effectiveness of vegetative buffer strips in removing crop protection products from runoff water.59

3.4.4 Treatment of Furrow Irrigation Outflow

In arid regions, furrow irrigation is sometimes used to provide water to crops. Typically there is outflow of water from such an irrigation system, which contains sediments, nutrients and crop protection products. The ultimate solution is either storing and reusing this water or switching to drip irrigation. However, such management practices have not yet been adopted by all growers. A number of technologies have been adopted to reduce the impact of furrow irrigation outflow on surface water bodies and these can be used individually or sometimes in combination with other technologies. The addition of polyacrylamide (PAM) can be used to minimize losses of sediment and crop protection products bound to sediment.60 Sedimentation basins, often in combination with the use of PAM, can also be used to minimize losses of sediment and crop protection products bound to sediment.61 Vegetative ditches and constructed wetlands receiving outflows from multiple fields62 are other techniques used for removing sediment and promoting degradation of crop protection products in outflows from furrow-irrigated fields.

3.4.5 Management of Urban Applications

Recent work with pyrethroids has shown that switching from broadcast applications to spot or crack and crevice applications on impervious surfaces, such as driveways or garage doors with a direct pathway to street drains, can dramatically reduce movement of crop protection products applied in urban/suburban settings to urban streams.63 Formulations can be optimized to reduce runoff losses of crop protection products in urban/suburban environments, but this effect is less than that obtained from switching from broadcast to spot or crack and crevice applications.64

4 Role of Regulation in Technology Development

Clearly the challenges being faced in increasing global production in a sustainable manner will be dependent on innovative approaches, integrating multiple technologies to minimize environmental impact while avoiding failure to control pests, diseases and weeds due to resistance development. As government funding in agricultural development is reduced, increased private investment is anticipated and has been steadily rising. As outlined in Section 2, however, costs of bringing a new synthetic chemical or new plant trait to the market are substantial, leading to significant consolidation within the industry. More importantly, time frames from discovery to first sales continue to increase for both technologies, with each now surpassing ten years on average.

In considering environmental impacts, innovation would be improved by finding quicker and more effective ways of predicting and appropriately mitigating potential effects, while balancing these against the benefits such as higher yields, less land use, reduced water consumption and lower carbon footprint. Regulatory requirements for biopesticides65 and gene-editing processes are still evolving, but these techniques are generally considered close to natural processes and may, therefore, be able to be assessed for potential risks and regulated under more rapid and less onerous regulatory burdens.

Since their introduction, there has been tremendous progress in reducing the potential risk that synthetic chemicals pose. Improved screening processes, identification of taxa-specific modes of action, extended and better validated testing protocols have all contributed to this.66 Use rates have fallen significantly, environmental detections are generally tending downwards67 and overall safety has increased, but paradoxically so has public concern. Incorporating the views of concerned citizens into environmental policy debates is a core value of a democratic society, but in the case of plant protection products its application is a complex one. Non-governmental organizations, regulatory authorities, the crop science industry, scientific community, consumers, food retailers and growers all have valid inputs from a domestic perspective, but the discussion also has implications for global trade. Lay persons and a range of technical experts have to be able to interact on the issue. Grounding such discussions by first undertaking a structured approach to assessing stakeholder values, rather than initially focusing on arcane technical details, has been proposed as a way of developing a more rational approach to the subject.68

Addressing and incorporating stakeholder concerns is well beyond the scope and remit of this chapter but it is important to recognize the role of risk assessment in the debate. Risk assessment quantifies the probability that an effect may occur and, therefore, attributes a number to it, even though that number may be extremely small and essentially de minimis or indistinguishable from background. Under this process, by definition, no technology is completely free from risk. At the same time, given financial constraints, no technology is likely to be widely accepted if it is without significant benefit. The focus of this debate, however, often centers on the risks of synthetic chemicals and then often on one component of the risk such as toxicity, e.g. levels at which effects are seen, or exposure, e.g. detections in monitoring studies. A compound with low inherent toxicity but high exposure because it is used in high amounts can pose the same risk as a compound with high inherent toxicity that is used in low amounts. Using a single toxicity or exposure value in isolation is not informative in making characterizations of risk. Any debate on the merits of a technology should quantify the risks and quantify the benefits while at the same time doing the equivalent calculation for the alternatives.

Greater interaction and cooperation is required between academic, government, industry and regulatory scientists to facilitate the adoption of innovative technologies which can enable farmers to increase production of healthy foods more sustainably. The crop protection industry is evolving in exciting new dimensions in the wake of a more connected world, but companies must be sensitive to the concerns of citizens and their many stakeholder groups. Research and development programs must address the needs of people, with the needs of our planet, and the need for profit. As an industry, new agricultural systems must maximize production while protecting public health and biodiversity, and minimizing environmental exposure.

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Footnote

  1. Corresponding author.

© The Royal Society of Chemistry 2017 (2016)