Yes, synthetic. And, biological.
How debates around row crop inputs can teach us about both production agriculture and how to approach new ideas.
"Hello, fellow ag nerds." One of my favorite podcasts, the Future of Agriculture, kicks off with this line from Tim Hammerich. For all who know me well (or not very well--it doesn't usually take long to find out), you know I am absolutely, 100 percent, without a doubt, an ag nerd. Perfect audience fit.
Often in production agriculture, we find ourselves in debates over biological vs. synthetic inputs, and it can be quite controversial—a “you can do it this way or get out” type of conversation. A few months ago, Tim interviewed the co-founders of a company developing what I would consider a literal "yes, and" type of solution for row crop producers. It. Was. Fascinating. And, it has implications for how all of us live our lives, farmers or otherwise.
Recently we talked about how production agriculture is strengthened when we embrace its complexity through a multitude of solutions. On a large scale, it can look like different farmers choosing different production methods. On a small scale it can look like using a multi-pronged approach to a particular on-farm challenge. Perhaps the most prominent challenge in row crop production is this fun little group of plant species we call weeds.
Over the last several decades, herbicide-resistant weeds (those no longer wiped out by approved synthetic means) have become increasingly common. When I make the drive home to north central Illinois in the summer, many of the corn and soybean fields along the way are dotted with unwelcome waterhemp and palmer amaranth. Other regions have different "problem weeds," but the overall concern is that our once-effective solutions from chemistry are no longer doing the trick. The International Database for Herbicide-Resistant Weeds (who knew that was an actual database?) shares data indicative of an overwhelming need for new solutions if we want to win the war on these unwanted plants; there are over 250 weed species with evolved herbicide resistance, and nearly 100 different types of herbicides have fallen below 100% effectiveness. We've all probably heard that "necessity is the mother of invention," and this is where those podcast guests show up with a truly novel innovation.
WeedOut, a start-up based in Israel, is developing what they call a biological herbicide. It's pretty brilliant. In essence, they create a sterile pollen to apply on weeds left in the field following chemical applications. This ends the reproductive life of that resistant weed, slamming the brakes on new production of even more resistant weed seeds. It's designed for use in tandem with current weed control strategies, not as a replacement. No need for anyone to feel threatened. Right? Well, when one of my good friends mentioned the new product to a group of peers who were also from farming families, they didn't seem so excited.
"We just need new mixes of chemical solutions, not any of this biological stuff." They were resistant to any type of new, integrated solution, even if it didn't seek to replace the most widely-accepted practice. I'm not saying there aren't worthwhile arguments against new products, ever, but to discount an idea solely because it doesn't fit into our established framework of how to grow crops (or how to pursue a meaningful career, how to strengthen relationships, or anything else worthwhile, for that matter) is short-sighted. We limit our potential when we refuse to widen our understanding of how the world might work. All of us are a little bit—probably quite a bit, actually—blind about some aspect of reality, and new ideas are a portal to information that we have yet to understand.
It's true that chemical crop protection solutions are powerful tools to help us produce high-yielding crops for animal feed and biofuels. It is also true that one solution is unlikely to remain the solution in perpetuity. Ideas like integrated pest management (also known as IPM) are well-respected for a reason. Newer types of products, like WeedOut's biological herbicide, are simply adding more tools to our toolbox as producers. The more options we have, the more we can tailor solutions to the specific needs of each region, each farm, and each acre, ultimately benefiting farmer profitability and consumer value.
How can we embrace the idea of both synthetic and biological? For those of us involved in producing food and fiber on the farm level, or find ourselves interested in the process, we can seek out wider knowledge to fill gaps in understanding. Places like the Future of Agriculture podcast, the Field Work podcast, and the Magnetic Ag email newsletter are a few of my favorite spots to learn, if we really want to get into the weeds (see what I did there?). This idea goes beyond crop protection solutions: how are we choosing to find new ways to relate to others, to look at political and social challenges, or even something as simple as how to get our daily tasks completed efficiently and effectively? Just because something is new doesn't automatically mean it will work, so we should still use discernment and be careful not to jump on the bandwagon before we've done our research; but, we can't do that research until we're open to the idea of the new. Let's seek to embrace the variety of tools in our toolbox, from the fields to our homes.
What's the one action you'll take this week to learn about a new technology (biological or synthetic) in agriculture? Let us know in the comments or on social media by tagging @miriamrosah and @nffaevp and using the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.