About 13,000 years ago, people made a radical departure in how they lived. After nearly 200,000 years as hunter-gatherers, they started farming the land. It happened in different parts of the world simultaneously, indicating that humankind was beginning to think about food differently. Plants and animals were being domesticated. People began staying in one place to work the land, forming settlements, then towns. Historians believe that farming was probably more work than hunting and gathering, but it may have provided as much as 100 times more calories per acre.1 More food could support larger population densities. Cities grew and civilizations began to flourish.
Since then, agriculture has continued to advance, and crop protection has played an important role in helping farming be more productive. Farmers learned quickly that the more they could reduce the impact of pests—insects, nematodes, weeds and diseases—the more food they could grow.
The ancient Sumerians left the first record of practicing crop protection. In 2,500 B.C., they were using sulfur compounds to control insects, a practice that’s still used in some organic farming. Some 2,000 years later, the Chinese were using predatory ants to protect their citrus crops. Farmers also started learning about the impact of climate and temperature on insect populations and looked for ways to time their planting to avoid insect infestation and damage.2 Weeds were controlled with cultivation methods, such as optimizing plant spacing. And, of course, there was a lot of human labor, like pulling weeds and removing insects by hand.
Over the centuries, science provided more insights and tools. Agricultural scientists and farmers experimented with new ideas for pest control, including using byproducts of the Industrial Revolution, like coal tar. However, those weren’t very effective or environmentally friendly. By the middle of the 20th century, scientists had developed new chemistry-based pesticides. These products were part of the Green Revolution, which resulted in huge improvements in farm productivity.
The 1960s ushered in a new era of understanding about how improper use of pesticides can affect humans and the environment. This launched a ground-breaking period of discovery that would revolutionize control of diseases, insects and weeds in crops.
Effective pest and weed control depends on effective active ingredients. An active ingredient is the part of the product that directly produces an effect, such as a chemical that kills a weed. In 1960, there were about 100 crop protection active ingredients available to farmers. Today, there are about 600. Products in 1960 represented just 15 chemical groups, but today, they represent more than 40.3 This huge increase in options means less risk of resistance, so that insecticides, nematicides, fungicides and herbicides can be more effective and useful for a longer time. During this same 60-year period, the majority of the most widely used pesticides have been replaced by products that are more effective against pests and have better environmental and human health profiles.3
Crop protection products have vastly improved in three major ways: lower use rates, more targeted action and faster degradation (breakdown) in the environment.
Today, farmers use drastically less herbicide active ingredients to protect against weeds than they used to—97% less, in fact.3 The discovery of new active ingredients combined with innovative formulations of final products enable the application of highly effective pesticides at lower quantities. The amount of active ingredient required to be effective, called use rates, is declining for all types of agricultural pest control active ingredients—herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and nematicides.
Low use rates make sense for farm management, too. Farmers don’t have to handle as much product or apply it as often, saving labor and time. Seed-applied technology products (such as seed coatings with fungicides and insecticides) from Corteva Agriscience protect seed directly and at low use rates. Research shows that seed treatments reduce the total amount of pesticide used throughout the life of a crop.*
As scientists have learned more about pests, they’ve been able to develop better crop protection products that have specific modes of action and can be applied in more targeted ways. For example, nematicides are important tools to help farmers protect roots from nematodes, tiny worms that can suck out nutrients, destroy roots and make plants more susceptible to disease. Some nematicides on the market work less selectively to control nematodes in the soil. Reklemel™ active, a newer nematicide from Corteva Agriscience, is very targeted. It controls plant-parasitic nematodes while helping to preserve soil microorganisms, including beneficial nematodes, which are good for the soil. This enables farmers to protect their crops and help keep the soil more biodiverse.
Other technology advances help farmers apply pesticides more precisely. Digital tools and technologies, like drones and sensors, help farmers know exactly where pests threaten their fields so they can treat just selected areas. Advanced product formulations help ensure pesticides land and stay on target.
Pesticide products must be reviewed and approved in every country or region where they will be used. Part of that rigorous assessment involves evaluating any potential risk to the environment. To earn—and maintain—approval, products must show they control pests with as little impact on the environment as possible.
Newer crop protection products help meet this criteria by breaking down quickly in the environment. Today’s pesticides also go to work protecting plants quickly after application, providing minimal opportunity for the product to impact other things in the environment besides the targeted pest. Some products degrade—sometimes within hours—into harmless, natural substances. Still more are made from naturally occurring materials themselves. Biological products from Corteva, for example, harness natural processes for pest control. These natural products help farmers protect their harvests and preserve environmental balance.
Farmers are driven by constant improvement. Each season offers a chance to maximize the potential of their land, seed and crop inputs. The drive to constantly improve farming in order to feed more people with fewer resources and less environmental impact drives improvements in crop protection, too. With science and nature as guides, crop protection continues to advance to sustain both farms and natural resources in ever-better ways.
*Seed treatment involves exposure of a.i. to 58 m2 of soil surface compared to 500 m2 for an in-furrow application and 10,000 m2 for an over spray. (2014 Bayer study)
1 “History of Agriculture.” Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. August 5, 2016. https://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/history-of-agriculture/.
2 “A Short History of Pest Management.” Penn State Extension. March 10, 2010. https://extension.psu.edu/a-short-history-of-pest-management.
3 “Evolution of the Crop Protection Industry since 1960.” Phillips McDougall. November 2018. http://www.croplifeasia.org/resource/evolution-crop-protection-industry-since-1960/.