By Ian Burke

Ian BurkeAs a research scientist, it’s not always easy to have a farmer perspective on herbicides. I suspect most farmers see the number of products available positively. Looking at the advertisements in Wheat Life and other agricultural periodicals, it appears there is an endless number of products available with new ones appearing every year.

But all those herbicide products likely contain generic herbicides available from other sources. We seldom get a new herbicide active ingredient on the market and with industry consolidation occurring, that trend is likely to continue.

So why are there so few herbicides?

First and foremost, the PNW small grains production area is a minor market when it comes to herbicides and no company develops a herbicide active ingredient solely for this region. Essentially, we are completely dependent on luck that a herbicide developed for the global wheat market will actually fit here. And by fit, I mean it has activity on our weeds and doesn’t cause issues when used in rotation with other crops. It’s a perspective farmers must keep in the back of their minds whenever they spray crop protection chemicals.

Herbicides are first and foremost designed to deliver a return on investment to shareholders, and as a consequence, corn and soybeans dominate herbicide development programs. An example of this phenomenon is the new Dow AgroSciences herbicide called Arlyx Active. It works great on a wide variety of broadleaf weeds–except those that are problems to farmers in the PNW. It will be great herbicide for farmers in the Great Plains, but unless our weeds change it’s unlikely farmers here will use much of it.

Not only is the PNW a minor market, the overall wheat market in the US consumes a fraction of the total pesticides used in the U.S. In 2008, pesticide use in wheat amounted to just 4.5% of total pesticide use (Figure 1). Corn, soybean, potatoes, and cotton were responsible for three-quarter of pesticides used by American farmers.

Wheat production areas are also distinct. About 99 percent of the wheat acres in the PNW are treated with a herbicide. The most similar market to the PNW in terms of herbicide use is North Dakota and far eastern Montana. In the southern Great Plains, herbicide use in wheat is less common with as little as 25 percent of the harvested acres in Oklahoma and Texas seeing an application. Combine that with declining wheat acres on a national basis, and our king of crops has essentially become a series of minor markets with distinct weed problems, herbicide needs, and use patterns.

Where a corn herbicide can be marketed across millions of acres with similar weed pressure, companies have to tailor their wheat herbicide products to fit specific local markets. Meanwhile, when a company decides to reduce the number of products to streamline their portfolio and simplify manufacturing, farmers lose a product. Olympus Flex, a Bayer Crop Science product, was likely cut for just such a reason.

And then there’s herbicides like 2,4-D, MCPA and dicamba. As growth regulating herbicides, these are inexpensive and effective on a broad spectrum of weeds. But that has its drawbacks because it means introducing a new broadleaf herbicide product for wheat faces an added hurdle in that it has to be relatively inexpensive and as effective as the growth regulating herbicides.

That’s a low bar as farmers can spray older generation herbicides for between 75 cents to $3 per acre. Like any product that is effective and economical, these herbicides command significant market share. Consider that MCPA and 2,4-D have been applied to more than 70 percent of the PNW small grain acres since the U.S. Department of Agriculture started keeping records.

Herbicides that control grasses are a very different story. Such products as Beyond, Outrider, Osprey, Axial, and Powerflex demand a price premium compared to broadleaf herbicides. The number of herbicides that control grasses are much fewer in number than broadleaf herbicides.

The final piece of the picture is transgenic crops resistant to herbicides. First introduced in 1996 as glyphosate (Roundup) resistance, transgenic-based weed management systems have come to dominate the herbicide market in corn, soybean, and cotton (three of the top four commodity crops by pesticide use!). That dominance is so great that companies effectively stopped developing herbicides for part of the early 2000’s, as indicated by the number of patents for new herbicides (Figure 2).

Since it takes about 10 years for a herbicide to go from discovery to product, we are living in the lull of discovery and will be for some time. And that’s for all herbicides, not just wheat herbicides.

It’s a sobering situation. We are completely dependent on the active ingredients currently on the market. The likelihood of a new group of herbicides appearing in the same numbers they did in the 1970s and 1980s is very unlikely. At best, we’ll see one or two every few years.

Like any technological innovation, herbicides have a lifespan. Nobody uses typewriters or Glean anymore because they are obsolete. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of all farmers, field managers, industry and university scientists to steward the herbicides that do remain available. Because we aren’t getting many new ones.

Figure 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge, Richard Nehring, Craig Osteen, Seth Wechsler, Andrew Martin, and Alex Vialou. Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture: 21 Selected Crops, 1960-2008, EIB-124, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2014.

https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/43854/46734_eib124.pdf