Perfect herbicide: Don’t expect help from new chemistry and this is why

Perfect herbicide: Don’t expect help from new chemistry and this is why

Ever wonder why weed scientists are so aggressive about protecting herbicide chemistry?  Growers are constantly being told to protect the chemistry available today because who knows when, or if, they will get anymore. But why is that? In short, any new chemistry would have to be ‘the perfect herbicide.’

But let’s say we want to try to bring new chemistry to the farm today and make that perfect herbicide. What do we need to do?

To get our new herbicide chemistry venture started, we need at least $250 million. After Brad Haire (reporter for Southeast Farm Press) donates the money, we will begin our research and development of the perfect herbicide. Brad needs to understand he will have to wait 10-15 years to begin getting any of his investment back and then only has 14 years before others can start selling the same product.  

Let’s say by some miracle Brad coughs up the $250 million. What do we need to do next to get to growers new herbicide chemistry?  

Environmentally friendly is a requirement for our new product. It cannot pose a threat to surface waters, ground waters, wild life, fish and most every other critter on earth. And for sure, it cannot pose any risk to endangered species: to plants as well as animals that eat plants. 

Of course, the user of the new chemistry product and the consumer of the crops that we treat with it must be protected. Acute or chronic toxicity issues are absolutely forbidden. Our product must be harmless to all humans who could come in contact with it directly or indirectly. 

Persistence of the herbicide also must be understood early in development, or in other words we need the herbicide to last just long enough to help growers, but then we need the herbicide to break down into friendly natural compounds that will not harm the environment or people. The herbicide certainly can’t pose any carryover risk to the crops our growers rotate into either!

Additionally, we have to:

1) Make sure the product does not cause unacceptable crop injury under a million different environmental conditions and grower production practices.

2) Make sure the product has an extended shelf life for storage, so it doesn’t go bad in a few years or separate out in the tank.

3) Understand how soil/water pH, as well as other water and soil characteristic, influence the activity or life of our product. 

We almost have it ... But wait.

We need to focus on making sure our new herbicide chemistry does not have any potential for an unfriendly odor or be prone to volatilization or drift.  And, of course, we have to check every potential tank mix partner for compatibility and impact on spray droplet size.  If a mixture influences droplet size by just the tiniest amount, we may have the EPA increasing our buffers as well as restricting our use pattern, which could threaten a grower’s ability to implement a sound weed management program.  

As our product is nearing commercialization, we will need to develop a resistance management plan and strategically figure out the most effective use patterns to maximize weed control, minimize crop injury and prevent resistance development.  

We have to make sure we can produce the appropriate amount of the product and have perfect, timely distribution across the world, because we’ll need access to the global market if we hope at all to get our initial investment back.

We’re almost there. We almost have the perfect herbicide. But wait, there’s one more hurdle and it can come out of the blue at any time: We better be prepared for various groups to challenge our label in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of California in attempts to delay or prevent our new tool getting to the growers who desperately need it as they strive to feed the world.

“Hmmm…..maybe those weed science guys are on to something.  Seems pretty smart to protect the herbicide chemistry we have today by making wise decisions, implementing diversified herbicide modes of action into an integrated program that uses cover crops, tillage and/or hand weeding.” At least we hope this is what you are thinking now if you haven’t thought something similar already.

Of course, we still need to be concerned that even if our growers do all the right things to protect current herbicide chemistries in the field today, will the products we do have now survive the current rigorous regulatory processes.

As you can see, to develop and then bring to market a new herbicide chemistry is nothing short of miraculous, which is why we haven’t had any new chemistry in more than two decades. A new chemistry today would have to be perfect. And very few things are perfect.

If agriculture and those who like to eat can’t come together to support the development of new effective tools that are friendly within sound-science reason to the consumer, the environment or for our growers, wonder who really will feed our kids and grandkids.

They’ll have to do it 'perfectly.'

Stanley Culpepper and William Vencill are University of Georgia weed scientists.

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