Secret potential of plants may replace harmful pesticides

The advantages include both healthier produce for consumers and a safer working environment for farmers.

plants agriculture 224.8 (photo credit: Courtesy)
plants agriculture 224.8
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A farmer in the middle of a hard day's work strolls over to a plant and grabs a juicy tomato to eat. That could hardly be more than a pastoral vision for most chemical-intensive farms, where the produce must be seriously washed before consumption to rid it of harmful pesticides. But for organic farmers, that vision is not far from reality. Today's organic farmer looks to substitutes for the phosphate-based pesticides that have dominated modern farming since World War I. The advantages of alternatives such as substances derived from plants include both healthier produce for consumers and a safer working environment for farmers. Shelef Agricultural Laboratories in Rehovot was recently granted initial governmental approval to test a new biological pesticide in real-life field applications. The substances are intended for use with vegetables, especially leafy greens such as lettuce, but ultimately may be useful for fruit trees as well, and even for household gardening. Finding the hidden properties of plants is "the oldest occupation in agriculture," says Oded Yafe, who heads the agricultural laboratory at Shelef. That occupation was pushed out by chemical pesticides, but has been enjoying a comeback over the last decade as organic farming comes into the mainstream. Yafe says that putting knowledge and information in the hands of farmers can lead to significant savings both for the farmer and for the environment. Citing an example from a conventional farm, Yafe says, "Suppose I run tests on a farm and decide that they need 30 parts per million of pesticide, and I see that they are currently at 60 ppm. I can tell them to reduce the use of pesticides, saving them money and meaning that less chemical will be introduced into the environment." Yafe is also one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Yahav, and established the Research Station for Desert Agriculture in the Arava. He says the Negev is fast becoming Israel's breadbasket for organic farming - with most of the produce destined for Europe. According to the Agriculture Ministry, around 15 percent of all Israeli agricultural exports are organic, and 70% of all organic farms in the country are in the Negev, including much in the embattled regions surrounding the Gaza Strip. New EU rules could make the biological pesticide business even more lucrative. In June, after two years of negotiations, the agriculture ministers of the EU agreed on a proposal to tighten the use of pesticides across Europe, banning those that cause cancer or pose unnecessary health risks to humans. The proposal, if turned into law, would likely lead to a significant increase in alternative methods of pest reduction. But the proposal is a serious bone of contention in Europe. British Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said his government could not support the bill, saying not enough studies have been done regarding what farmers will use to replace banned pesticides. If "natural," safer pesticides can be discovered and brought to market fast enough, the opposition to pesticide reform will lose much of its argument. So Shelef's step forward in getting approval to run the tests is very timely. AP contributed to this article.