Tom Costamagna is a progressive proponent of new crop protection techniques at the grower level, and he has the experience to back it up. Costamagna started his career in biologicals research at the University of California-Davis prior to joining Mid-American Growers as director of plant quality. We asked for his take on the future of greenhouse crop protection.
Q: How different will greenhouse crop protection look to the grower in the next 30 years?
Costamagna: There has been a lack of new chemistries coming to the market in recent years and I believe this trend will continue. Greenhouse growers will need to rely on science for products, techniques, and breakthroughs in chemistry, genetics, plant pathology and entomology. The tools academia has today to gain insight into these respective areas are remarkable and as we begin to understand things on a molecular even more, this will open opportunities to address the problems that impact us. There is a world of fungi, bacteria, metabolites and enzymes out there. I believe there is huge opportunity in understanding these things.
Q: Does this mean we’re going to see less of the traditional products growers are accustomed to using?
Costamagna: If the crop protection products we are using today are going to be more heavily regulated, lose registration or not be as effective as they once were, we will have to change. Will the chemistries of today be here tomorrow? This is a multibillion dollar question the chemical companies would like to know the answer to. A number of materials have stood the test of time and I am pretty confident there are a number being used today that will be around in the future.
Breakthroughs in science will determine how a paradigm shift in crop protection unfolds, but I do know that whether it is 10, 20 or 30 years from now, this industry will be spraying materials. What they are, how they are composed and how they will be delivered is what will be different.
Q: How much of a convergence of traditional chemistry and biological control will we see?
Costamagna: I believe to a certain degree we will always have traditional chemistry. These products are an immediate response to problems and have historically been an economical choice.
I think the future strategy of crop protection will be preventative rather than reactive. And I believe it will be heavily dependent on biological control agents, whether they are beneficial insects, mites or biopesticides.
The fact that these biocontrol agents aren’t being used more today has occurred for a number of reasons: cost and economics, knowledge and understanding of the materials and the incorrect use of the products causing people not to be successful. And I think we’re still lacking the number of choices we need for pest complexes (diseases, insects and mites).
Greater use of these products and year-round demand by agriculture will help with economics. In turn, this will aid in the knowledge and understanding due to broader use and more dollars being spent.
Q: What developments will we see in crop protection techniques beyond new products?
Costamagna: I believe the largest improvement that can be made is in the delivery of crop protection products to maximize efficacy and minimize environmental impact. For example, Metrolina is using electrostatic sprayers (ESS) on their crane booms. These sprayers add a small charge to the particles being applied. The charge attracts them to the plant and ensures they are delivered to the intended target. They also reduce the cost substantially, since volumes applied are less than half of a conventional wet spray with greater control of the intended organism. Concepts like ESS will maximize the efficacy of a crop protection product whether it is a traditional synthetic chemistry or biopesticide.
I believe another area that will help with crop protection in the future is the greenhouse structure itself. The trend for the past decade or so has been taking advantage of the best of both worlds inside and out with the MX style of greenhouses. The advantages of temperature, light and ventilation have been the driving force behind this style of structure but anyone who has grown in them knows you are at the mercy of the pest pressure from the natural surrounding environment.
New concepts in greenhouse structures will maximize light, conserve energy and water and reduce the influx of insect pests and diseases while creating an ideal atmosphere for plants to grow. Kubo Greenhouse Projects is doing some really interesting things with its Ultra Clima Greenhouse. Houweling’s Greenhouse Co. in Camarillo, Calif., was the first to build this is type of greenhouse in the United States.
Q: These new structures and sprayers are exciting developments, but what about smaller growers who may not have the resources to make those investments? What’s the future for them?
Costamagna: Currently small, mid-size and larger growers are using the same crop protection products. The volumes and price points are different, but I believe this will remain true for the future.
As to whether they will all be able to use the same delivery systems, it’s true the cost of equipment and future greenhouse technologies in regard to structures could make some concepts potentially prohibitive for the smaller growers. Economics are the driving force. But I have seen a number of small to mid-size growers improvise and engineer what the larger ones are doing with success.
Q: Products like neonicotinoids are in the news. Are we going to see increasing regulations regarding conventional pest control in the coming years?
Costamagna: Environmental stewardship comes to mind here. Unfortunately, one rotten apple — or one person misusing a product — can spoil the bunch. There is no question that regulation is getting stricter and more difficult when it comes to the chemistries we use in agriculture. I believe today we have a much greater understanding of these chemistries in regard to persistence in the environment and negative effect on human health. Regulation is helpful when it is not misused or abused.
Will the chemistries of old be controlled under a “special use need” as it is with an older product like methyl bromide where there is still no alternative that works as well? Time will tell. Hopefully any new regulation takes into consideration all aspects before making a decision on the tools we use today.