Is it possible to improve crop productivity?

Is it possible to improve crop productivity

A systems approach and specialist support could be the answer

Globally, crop production sustains humans and animals alike, and it is pivotal to human survival. By nature, the two main focal points of the crop production system are productivity and profitability. All inputs into the crop production system have one or both of these two end goals in mind. Productivity is managed by the application of numerous inputs, including fertilizers, crop protection inputs, irrigation (where needed) and plant manipulation (e.g., pruning of trees).

The question that arises when one considers the future of crop production is if every single aspect of the farming system is optimized in a way that there is no more room for improvement.
Are we harvesting yields equal to the genetic potential of the crop and if not, what can we do to do better?

In my opinion, there are two ways of thinking which as not entered agricultural production systems comprehensively and they are firstly a “systems approach” to the production unit, be it under cover, in orchards, in greenhouses or in open fields. The second is for specialist support to crop protection.

In South Africa, crops have been produced for hundreds of years. In earlier years, just as in other places, significant yield loss was experienced by pests and diseases. Over years, as options for crop protection became available, the risks posed by pests and pathogens could be managed better. Genetic improvement of plant material, research on best production practices and the wider availability of affordable chemical control options also, amongst others, contributed to gains in productivity.

Of the options available for crop protection, a strong focus currently still lies on the use of agrochemicals, which has often proved to be a “silver bullet” eliminating the target organism and sparing the yield.

Yet, in recent years, agrochemicals have become less of a “silver bullet” since:

  • Existing, registered products are presenting lower levels of efficacy, mainly due to tolerance or resistance in the organism targeted.
  • In response, farmers add an fungicide spray to their program or start using higher dosages of the agrochemical, which in return further encourages tolerance and resistance in the harmful organism’s populations
  • Regulatory demands for reduced agrochemical use from local and foreign markets. These regulations are often driven by consumer pressure, for the sake of the environment and human health, since agrochemicals may be toxic to off-target organisms – which includes humans (more often for those who work with agrochemicals on farms)
  • Increased pressure from both pathogens and pests as temperatures warm and become more suitable for faster completion of the life cycle. If the timing of agrochemical application is too late, it will not be able to control these populations (as evident by locust populations causing havoc all over the world)

So, these factors are forcing us to rethink how we go about protecting crops and reaching the full genetic potential of the crop. We are all the more being driven towards sustainable, non-toxic solutions for managing pests and diseases. But what exactly does this mean? Do we have to take a giant leap towards only environmentally friendly products? Not at all. We need to work towards a best-of-both-worlds approach, where the crop protection approach is mixed.

In this mixed approach I suggest the following:

A systems approach to crop health

The crop production system, despite requiring varied inputs, is a single unit, with many complex input components interacting at any given moment. These include the crop protection inputs, the condition of the soil, the water quality, and the nutrition. Crop health management, therefore, requires a holistic approach to optimize and maintain the health of plants. The focus in such a system is on cultivating and maintaining the health of plants as a first priority. This is done by limiting or eliminating the biotic and abiotic factors that inhibit plants and prevent the achievement of full genetic potential. Healthy plants are more resilient and less susceptible to problems. In this context, the judicious use of fertilizer, the application of biostimulants which supports biotic and abiotic stress tolerance and crop-specific production practices that optimize plant health should be considered. In field crops, this could mean using an optimal planting density so that plants need not compete, in tree crops, appropriate drainage can support the prevention of soilborne diseases occurring when soil remains moist.

Specialist support for crop protection

Accurate application of product – backed by science and specialist support
Other reasons for failure in protecting the crop with agrochemicals include an incorrect choice of product, wrong dose, inappropriate spray application methods, and insufficient coverage of the canopy/plant tissue to which applications are made. Since chemical spray options are dwindling, we must be sure that applications of agrochemicals are as accurate as possible. This calls for specialist on-farm support, where calibration of equipment can be audited, the best choice of product for specific situations is known, and optimal spray apparatus for coverage of the plant material is used.

Integrated management– backed by science and specialist support

Integrated management considers the prevention of pests and diseases occurring in a system over the long term. Orchard sanitation, a cultural method of lowering pest and disease pressure is an example of a factor that will be considered in an integrated management system. This requires monitoring for the presence and abundance of unwanted organisms, accurate identification of the problem, and consideration of management strategies other than agrochemical spray applications. These strategies could include biological control, where a predator of a pest is released, cultural control, such as not overusing nitrogen (which makes plants more susceptible to disease) or mechanical – which requires physical removal of sources of inoculum or infestation.

In South Africa, the appreciation of a systems approach is growing and specialist scientific support for on farm decisions is becoming all the more available as businesses have specifically start focusing on these needs. Notably, with the advent of 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies, accurate application of products is becoming all the more feasible. This also holds true for accurate pest and disease identification, which will allow best integrated methods, but also better pest and disease management with agrochemicals combined other mixed approaches.

Contact the author: ida@biorevolution.co.za

 

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