KILLING chemical resistant weeds to help feed the world’s rapidly expanding population is a humanitarian pursuit motivating the new Herbicide Innovation Partnership, says global herbicide resistance expert Professor Stephen Powles.
Professor Powles spoke at the official opening of the Partnership’s new laboratories in Frankfurt, Germany last week, sending a powerful message about the underlying aims, of the scientific research.
“In reality it is the farmers of the world that will feed the world and they will need all the help they can get to feed 9 billion people,” he said while repeatedly raising a clenched fist, in a gesture of steely determination, during the passionate presentation.
“It will be done through human brains, innovation, sweat and hard work; as it has always been.
“It’s going to take all of the tools and technologies we have - but we can do it.”
Professor Powles said herbicide resistance threatened the world’s major grain producing nations - the US, Brazil, Canada, Argentina and Australia - where it wasn’t possible to pull-up weeds, by hand.
His presentation focussed on resistance issues in the USA, Brazil and Argentina where 148 million hectares of corn, soybean and cotton are produced each year, mostly for export, to help feed the world.
Those countries adopted glyphosate resistant Roundup Ready cropping technology over the past two decades but have over-used the chemical, while ignoring diversity.
Professor Powles said glyphosate was “the world’s greatest herbicide” which underpinned “a technological revolution” resulting in the fastest adoption of any agricultural innovation, “ever”.
He said the great majority of US growers adopted glyphosate resistant Roundup Ready soybean, corn and cotton which now comprised 90 per cent of the total crop.
But in doing so, those growers removed the diversity needed to keep any chemical working properly, he said.
“I remember talking to a North Carolina farmer and he said, ‘I’ve got diversity. It’s Roundup Ready corn, followed by Roundup Ready soybean, followed by Roundup Ready cotton’,” he said.
Professor Powles said almost 50 per cent of the 74 million hectares of corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the US now contained glyphosate resistant weeds which threated global food production.
He said Brazil would undoubtedly become the world’s greatest agricultural nation but also faced huge resistance problems, given 96pc on the nation’s soybean crop was Roundup Ready and therefore sprayed with just one herbicide.
Brazil now has 15m hectares of glyphosate resistant weeds, he said, while Argentina has 1m hectares and 100pc of its soybean crop is Roundup Ready.
Professor Powles said glyphosate was a one in 100 year chemical and “up there with penicillin as a boon to human health and sustenance”.
But he said “we’ve treated it like a resource that would go on forever”.
“This was a revolution which has helped to feed the world,” he said.
“It has provided grain, and fibre in the form of cotton, to the world but it is at severe risk due to the evolution of resistance.
“We need to change globally if we’re to keep these precious chemical resources sustainable because glyphosate is simply the world’s greatest herbicide.”
Professor Powles said Australia recently lost the “dubious distinction” of being the world’s number one nation for herbicide resistance, as the US regained top place.
But he said glyphosate resistant weeds still covered 10m hectares of Australia’s 24m hectares of annual cereal crop production; while multiple resistance to different chemicals was also a problem.
Professor Powles said herbicide resistant weeds were a major threat to global food production and a challenge that must be addressed, in the world’s biggest food producing regions.
“Feeding the world will not be achieved by lettuce growers or apricot growers because that sort of food, or even meat, cannot be exported at room temperatures in huge quantities around the world,” he said.
“But what can be exported is grain which then can be used around the world in various ways.
“And the great grain producing nations of the world, that export grain, are becoming very important to the future of human kind.
“In Australia, and in these other great grain exporting countries, we need to be able to use these wonderful herbicides that are environmentally benign, that meet all of the right standards, and can remove weeds and allow us to produce food for the world.”
Professor Powles said the task of the new $45 million Bayer and the Grains Research and Development Corporation research initiative over the next five years, was to discover new chemicals to fight resistance because “we badly need them”.
He said that was an honourable challenge, for human-kind, which would be undertaken by the 11 ex-pat post-doctoral students based in the newly unveiled Bayer laboratories in Frankfurt.
“The task then is to help the world use those precious chemicals in a far more sustainable way than we did with Roundup Ready crops,” he said.