The three reasons pest and disease management in the future will look nothing like it does today

Imagine being sent to battle an incredibly formidable enemy.  One that has a good chance to, if not defeat you, at least inflict considerable damage.  You prepare well in advance, gather all of your weapons, and venture forth.

But on your way to the battle field, your weapons jam up and no longer work.  Visibility drops considerably and someone ties one arm behind your back, at the same time warning you that you now must battle against something stronger, smarter, and faster.

Welcome to the future of agricultural pest and disease management.  

Source: Monty Python

On the current industry trajectory, growers will find their ability to protect their crops incredibly hindered.  However, with the right preparation, partners, and tools, growers can proactively change this story.


Growers spend $80 billion per year on pesticides, a number increasing at more than 5% compound annual growth per year.  Despite this extraordinary outlay, growers still lose 20% to 40% of their crops per year to pest and disease – that’s $500 billion worth of lost yields per year, equivalent to the annual GDP of Argentina!  In parallel, the use of pesticides unfortunately causes undeniable environmental damage, estimated at $10 billion per year in the United States alone.

While undoubtedly pesticides help grow food, fiber, and fuel, the industry is just not using them correctly.  To be frank, growers are spending a lot of money on something that does not work as well as it should be, while causing significant collateral damage.  The system is broken.

Agronomic, regulatory, and consumer market forces are only precipitating the challenge of sustainably protecting crops.


Agronomic forces

Many weapons in the toolkit against pest and disease are becoming obsolete, while at the same time growers are having to compete with an ever increasing number of pest and disease.

Pesticide resistance – Through the overuse of many pesticides, a large number of pesticides that once reliably protected crops have now become virtually useless in the field.  This overuse has given weeds, insects, and fungus the genetic opportunity to build up resistance to these chemicals, and they have happily taken the opportunity.

For example, there are currently 500 unique cases of herbicide resistance weeds globally, affecting the growth of 93 crops in 70 countries.  Palmer amaranth, considered one of the most devastating weeds in North American agriculture with the ability to reduce corn yield by up to 90%, has now been found to be resistant to both the glyphosate and 2,4-D herbicide families.  Over 500 species of insects are resistant to insecticides and fungicide resistance is also starting to take hold.

Products in an industry becoming obsolete is not an agriculture-specific problem.  What is unique to agriculture is that the research pipeline is not producing replacement products at the pace that older ones phase out.  According to CropLife America, it takes $286 million and 11 years to bring a new pesticide to market. Unfortunately, pesticide resistance builds up faster than that. Studies have shown resistance appearing as soon as 2 years after the introduction of an insecticide.

Climate change and extreme weather – Not only are fewer pesticides working in the favor of crop protection, but due to climate change and extreme weather, the footprint and growth of pest and disease across agriculturally viable areas is increasing.  With these weather and climate phenomena:

Pests will develop faster: As a cold-blooded animal, insects’ growth and development is highly affected by temperature.  With increased temperatures, insects develop faster and emerge earlier in the season. This means that some pests will even have time to produce an extra generation of offspring each growing season and even approach resistance more quickly due to faster emerging generations.

More areas will become hospitable to pests and disease: With increased temperatures, areas previously too cold to support many pests and diseases will become hospitable to them.  Researchers have shown that since 1960, hundreds of pests and pathogens are moving poleward (away from the Equator) at a rate of about 2 miles per year.

Diseases will travel farther: Many plant pathogens can become windborne and travel over long distances via wind, hurricanes, or other natural phenomena.  An expected uptick in extreme weather due to climate change will increase both the quantity and geographic reach of these pathogen carriers, potentially emulating Asian Soybean Rust’s arrival in the United States from Venezuela after hitching a ride with Hurricane Ivan.

Regulatory forces

While there still remain a variety of effective chemical treatments, governments have begun placing additional restrictions on those pesticides that do still work.  While pesticides are beneficial in that they kill bad things that attack crops, they also kill other things. When pesticides are used, growers can be left with unintended consequences such as the devastation of beneficial insects and negative effects on human health.

As such, new regulatory restrictions on popular pesticides have developed.  Europe has banned neonicotinoids, a top pesticide family, due to their effect on other insect populations.  During the writing of this blog post, even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which during the Trump Administration has been rolling back many environmental protections, cancelled the registration of 12 pesticides containing neonicotinoids.  On the state level, California banned the use of chlorpyrifos, another leading insecticide, in early May 2019, due to its harmful effect on brain development in fetuses. As part of the ban, California set aside $5.7 million to help farmers transition to alternatives.  Both Arkansas and Missouri have implemented various restrictions on the use of Dicamba, a popular herbicide, due to its effect on non-target crops.

Consumer forces

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, consumer preferences are going to change how growers manage pest and disease if they want to effectively market their products.  Demand for organic crops signals a widespread desire by consumers for reduced pesticide usage. This is not a have versus have-nots situation. According to a Gallop poll in 2014, the percentage of Americans with annual household income under $30,000 that actively tried to include organic foods (42%) was similar to the percentage with over $75,000 in household income (49%).  And this trend will continue to rise – over half of survey respondents age 18 to 29 reported that they actively try to include organic products in their shopping, compared with one-third of those age 65 and older. And a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 68% of adult households purchased organic food at least once in the previous 30 day period.

Organic section at Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Florida Panhandle

No matter what one believes about the use of pesticides, the train of public perception has already left the station with a clear message: consumers increasingly prefer fewer pesticides and greater transparency into growers’ growing practices.

What can be done?

Growers are faced with a perfect storm of three concurrent forces placing pressure on their pest and disease management practices.  While it appears the cards are stacked against growers moving forward, there are three key steps that a grower can take to protect her crops.  

  1. Familiarize herself with non-chemical methods of managing pest and disease.  While chemical methods may not be as reliable as they used to be, when used in conjunction with biological, cultural, and operational methods against pest and disease (what is known as Integrated Pest Management), growers can realize better performing pest and disease management results.
  2. Consult with the local Extension Agent.  Extension Agents are the best source for insight into which treatments and management practices are working in the area.  They can help the grower maximize potential today while preparing for the future.
  3. Document crop scouting, field findings, and practices in an easy-to-use software that allows the grower to easily review what she is finding across her fields and which treatments are working (or not).  To manage effectively, one must be able to measure what is going on in the fields. Software applications that empower the grower to make more informed pest and disease management decisions should be adopted and used actively.  Farm Dog, one such application, is available for both Apple and Android devices and can start showing value immediately.
Agronomist using Farm Dog in the field
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