- Author: Steven Fennimore
There are few new herbicide active ingredients in the pipeline now. In the 1970s and 1980s several new active ingredients were introduced every year. There were lots of jobs in industry and weed science was the place to be. I myself was with ICI/Zeneca from 1983 to 1994 in their R&D group. However, we are now in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century and new herbicide active ingredients might cost $300 million from discovery to launch. Needless to say there are not many new active ingredients in the pipeline. We have a few agricultural chemical companies that are screening for new active ingredients and perhaps the large scale of glyphosate resistant weed problems will stimulate some of the agricultural chemical companies to reinvigorate their screening process. I think it is easy to predict that because of the much higher R&D costs now, and the fact that there are fewer major Ag chem companies today looking for new chemistry, we will not see as much new herbicide chemistry in the future as in the past.
I urge the reader to take a good look at the agricultural chemical industry – most of the companies are large concerns with large product portfolios as the result of industry consolidation. They are dealing with complex regulatory systems, and are constantly concerned with product liability claims and maintaining profitability amid fierce competition. The agricultural chemical industry spends much of its time in a defensive stance, to protect market share and maintain profitability. The agricultural chemical industry is conservative and defensive by necessity today. I do not intend this as criticism of the agricultural chemical industry, but rather as an honest apparisal of the present state of affairs. In my opinion I do not look to the agricultural chemical industry as a source of breakthrough technology in the future, but rather a source of small incremental changes. Weed science needs to develop new technologies to deal with today's pressing weed problems, therefore it needs to look beyond the agricultural chemical industry towards more innovative sectors.
A notable exception in the agricultural chemical industry is Monsanto's CP4 gene and glyphosate tolerant crops. This was clearly innovative and disruptive technology that changed the industry forever. However, these crops are established now and much public and private effort is focused on defending this technology eg. descriptions of the biology and physiology of resistant weeds, the RNAi strategy to overcome glyphosate resistance. Should so much public sector funding and effort be spent on defending technology that is so troublesome? Are there better places to spend the people's money on research? I would argue that we should instead be employing RNAi strategies to develop novel weed control technologies such as stimulating or down regulating bud dormancy genes in perennial weeds. Many more opportunities for novel weed control technologies are probably waiting to be discovered in the realm of gene regulation. Why isn't there more research in this area?
I am very excited about the prospects for weed science, because there is a lot happening outside the agricultural chemical industry in the realm of engineering. Lettuce has traditionally been seeded and thinned to desired stands by a hand weeding crew with hoes. However, decreasing labor availability and increasing costs for lettuce hand thinning has resulted in need for labor saving technologies. Recently, commercial machines capable of robotic lettuce thinning have been developed to machine-thin lettuce to the desired final crop density, helping growers reduce the ~$40 million/year spent to hand thin the crop. These systems typically utilize machine vision technology to detect plant location and accurately direct herbicidal sprays, such as carfentrazone to thin crops to desired stands. The lettuce thinners typically treat 13% of the surface area of a lettuce field spraying an intermittent band 4 in wide with two plant lines per 40 inch bed wide raised bed. Within the length of the plant line, about 30% is left unsprayed to preserve the “saved” lettuce plants. The machine vision system has been tested for selective application of fungicides or insecticides to the saved plants with a second applicator system mounted on the lettuce thinner. In selective fungicide/insecticide application to the saved plants about 7% of the field is treated, compared to 100% for a broadcast application. The potential for machine-vision guidance systems to reduce pesticide dose applied to a field is just beginning to be appreciated.
All of weed science, public sector scientists, university administrators, agricultural chemical companies, major equipment manufacturers and interested entrepreneurs need to find a way to encourage, collaborate and finance startup companies. I would argue that there is a considerable amount of work that would be better done by startup companies. Examples of technology in development or recently developed by small companies are automatic lettuce thinners, robotic intra row cultivators, and mobile steam applicators. There are other small companies focused on biopesticides. If weed science is to balance offense (new weed control tools) with defense (preservation of existing weed control tools) then it must look beyond the traditional agricultural chemical industry for innovation and inspiration.