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Sustainable cultivation goes much further than pests and natural enemies
19 April 2018
The role of technology in biological control is set to grow even further; that's the prediction of Peter Maes, Koppert's director of Corporate Marketing. The latest techniques and technology are growing in importance in response to Koppert's broaderfield of work. ‘If we can get to know and understand the plant better, we can also help it better.’
For decades, agricultural producers have not had to think about the sustainability of their cultivation processes. That has been changing over the last twenty years and it is now becoming clear that conventional, non-sustainable cultivation has reached its limits. The chemical products are becoming less effective, their residues are a threat to food safety, and both chemicals and artificial fertilizers are products of the petrochemical industry which relies on mineral oil. ‘And we all know that mineral oil is a finite natural resource and that there are already restraints on its use due partly to the CO2 emissions of this industry as well as the climate policies in place in many parts of the world,’ says Peter Maes, presenting his view on the future at the headquarters of Koppert Biological Systems in Berkel en Rodenrijs, the Netherlands.
The interactions between plant and environment
100% sustainability is more than just biological control using natural enemies. ‘It goes much further for us, too. We have already made good progress with the use of microorganisms, both in the soil and above ground. Look at the success of a product like Trianum. We are also making very good progress with the use of the NatuGro natural nutrients. However, there are still many interactions between plants and their environment about which we still know too little. There is particular potential in discovering more about those interactions. If we can get to know and understand the plant better, we can also help it better.’
Peter Maes states that greater understanding of the interactions would allow us to cultivate crops in a much more natural and therefore more sustainable way and in many cases actually prevent outbreaks of diseases and pests, thus avoiding the need to combat them. ‘This would make professional cultivation even more natural and much less dependent on chemical crop protection products and artificial fertilizers.’
Technology is becoming cheaper
On the other hand, research into the complex interactions between plants and their environment requires a great deal of fundamental knowledge. Is Koppert Biological Systems big enough for that? ‘No, not at present,’ says Peter Maes, ‘although Koppert is certainly strong in R&D and we have a lot of highly-educated scientific staff. For the time being, however, we will need to keep collaborating with universities, testing stations, and other knowledge institutes.’
Nevertheless, the technology used in the research is becoming ever cheaper. ‘Take the genome, for example. Around ten to fifteen years ago, performing a read-out of a genome was extremely expensive. These days, it is more affordable. If you have the scope to invest in the latest technologies, you can take care of much more yourself than you used to be able to, as long as you have qualified people at your disposal, of course.’
Precision agriculture and horticulture
Technology is also gaining in importance in the world of practice. Peter Maes points to outdoor crops, where Koppert is continuing to gain ground in major crops such as maize, soya, and sugar cane. Drones with cameras and sensors will soon be used to detect pest hotspots in the enormous areas of land devoted to these crops. Other drones can then drop the natural enemies in exactly the right spots. ‘We are moving towards precision agriculture and precision horticulture. We will be working in the same way in the horticultural sector using our current dispersal systems (Airobug). However, this approach is not a revolution but rather evolution: we are progressing step by step.’
No romance, just science
Lastly, Peter Maes points to the consumer, who has a romanticized notion of natural cultivation. ‘He or she thinks of the sun, the fresh air of the great outdoors, ladybirds, butterflies... and while there is nothing wrong with that image, it is definitely a romanticized version of reality. Ultimately, progress is made by following the path of research and science.’