Customized solutions for protecting global harvests

How are crop protection products made?

  • Help for farmers: Dr. Bernd Laber (right) analyzes the DNA of weeds to track down the mutations responsible for resistance to herbicides.
  • The plant experts also investigate the distribution of the active ingredient on or in the stalks of cereal and corn plants. This also enables them to study the mechanisms by which the molecule is decomposed in the plant.
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Help for farmers: Dr. Bernd Laber (right) analyzes the DNA of weeds to track down the mutations responsible for resistance to herbicides.

Corn, wheat and canola have many enemies. It's not only weeds that compete with them for food. Hungry insects and fungal pathogens also pose a threat to plant life. Researchers at Bayer CropScience are developing innovative products to protect crops - customized solutions designed to protect harvests the world over.

These tiny harvest helpers have neither arms nor legs, but farmers worldwide rely on the support they provide. Were it not for the innovative molecules inside crop protection products, the corn earworm, weeds and Fusarium could spread unhindered, with dramatic effects.

Pathogenic fungi, for example, can destroy up to 30 percent of harvests worldwide. Yet the chemicals that farmers use have a difficult mission to fulfill. They have to target pests, fungi and weeds specifically, but at the same time these herbicides, insecticides and fungicides must pose no risk to people or the environment. This is why chemists, biologists and entomologists (insect specialists) at Bayer CropScience are working on effective, environmentally compatible mechanisms of action for innovative crop protection products. In this way they are helping farmers round the globe to safeguard the food supply for a growing world population. These researchers are also making rice, tomatoes and canola more tolerant of climatic stress factors.

Innovative crop protection products

It takes a long time for a promising active ingredient to be ready for use in the field. Between eight and ten years elapse between the first tests in the laboratory and field trials and the granting of marketing authorization by the regulatory authorities. This work costs around EUR 200 million.

Between eight and ten years elapse between the first tests in the laboratory and field trials and the granting of marketing authorization by the regulatory authorities.Zoom image
Between eight and ten years elapse between the first tests in the laboratory and field trials and the granting of marketing authorization by the regulatory authorities.

Researchers have to analyze thousands of substances. An average of just one in every 140,000 compounds tested manages to become a crop protection product ready for use. Scientists screen enormous substance libraries in the search for suitable active ingredients to control agricultural problems such as pollen beetles, soybean rust and couch grass.

Once they have found a promising chemical compound, they put it through a veritable marathon of testing. If the compound is a potential insecticide, for example, the scientists investigate its effect on the metabolism of an insect pest. They also investigate the way in which the compound is distributed in or on stalks of cereal plants or in young corn plants. These tests enable the scientists to develop effective strategies for controlling voracious insects and, at the same time, to investigate the mechanisms by which the molecules are decomposed inside the plant.

A way of escorting substances inside the plant

Some crop protection products have to be formulated in a special way so that they can penetrate the leaves of plants. The outer layer of cells on a leaf, known as the epidermis, is covered by a wafer-thin water-repellent membrane known as the cuticle.Zoom image
Some crop protection products have to be formulated in a special way so that they can penetrate the leaves of plants. The outer layer of cells on a leaf, known as the epidermis, is covered by a wafer-thin water-repellent membrane known as the cuticle.

The active ingredients are the stars in a crop protection product, but they need many chemical helpers to get where they are needed. They have to be delivered to the place where they can develop their full potential. A crop protection formula is only effective if the mixture of auxiliary substances is right. “Without the right formulation, even the best active ingredient is useless,” says Dr. Hilmar Wolf, Head of the Fungicide Formulation Group at Bayer CropScience.

His team develops an individual combination of chemicals to accompany each of many different active ingredient molecules. These auxiliary substances ensure that a compound is transported optimally from the water-based spraying solution to the part of the plant where it needs to act. The right formulation enables small amounts of an active ingredient to be distributed evenly over a large area of land.

The climate and the nature of the soil also play an important role in developing a crop protection product and the related formulating technology. In the same way as for a medicine, it is important the find the optimal form in which to bring a crop protection product onto the market. The options include granules, powders and liquids.

The hunt for active ingredients

Herbicides need to perform well under practical conditions in field trials, where weeds are often more robust than in a protected laboratory environment.Zoom image
Herbicides need to perform well under practical conditions in field trials, where weeds are often more robust than in a protected laboratory environment.

The scientists who identify new active ingredients also test them to make sure that they don't pose a risk to humans or to other plant and animal species. Dr. Thomas Wegmann, Global Project Manager at Bayer CropScience, explains the goal of all crop protection scientists as follows, “Ideally, every active ingredient should ultimately be broken down into carbon dioxide and water.”

The scientists also study test organisms to see how they respond to a candidate active ingredient. These non-target organisms are selected to represent three habitats - water, air and soil - and include things like algae, water fleas, earthworms, mites and ichneumon wasps.

Ecotoxicology and computer animation

These tests are carried out both in the laboratory and under the real-life conditions found in a natural ecosystem. When evaluating the environmental compatibility of a potential new active ingredient, scientists also consider the typical behavior of the test species. Computer simulations and extensive ecotoxicology studies are further elements in a process which ensures that crop protection products are among the most thoroughly investigated of all chemicals. These products are vital for modern agriculture. Modern crop protection products are the reason that it is possible to find high-quality, healthful and safe food on supermarket shelves and market stalls all over the world. This is why crop protection is central to Bayer CropScience’s overall strategy for the agricultural value chain.

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Last updated: November 4, 2013  Copyright © Bayer AG
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