By 2050, there will be 2 billion more people on planet Earth. Because everybody has to eat, the latest science suggests we may need 70% more crop production to meet demand. But right now, all the tricks we have to boost yields–pesticides, fertilizer–also do incredible amounts of damage to the environment.
More than 5.5 billion pounds of pesticide, for instance, is used worldwide each year, including 1 billion pounds here in the United States, helping protect plants but also leaching into groundwater as runoff, contaminating drinking supplies, or being carried away by wind (a phenomenon known as spray drift) where it settles on a nearby homes, schools, and playgrounds. In fact, researchers have found decades-old pesticide particles as far away as Antarctica, which suggests our entire planet is currently covered in the stuff.
One of the major problems is that only 2% of pesticide applied to crops actually stays there. Maher Damak, a 27-year-old scientist and MIT Ph.D. candidate, has a solution to make pesticides more sticky, and therefore allow us to use far less of them. “The problem is that a lot of plants are what we call hydrophobic, or water-repelling,” says Damak. “Pesticides are mostly water-based, so when it’s sprayed onto plants, droplets either bounce or roll off the surface. This is not visible to the naked eye–it happens in about 20 milliseconds.”
His invention, five years in the making, was just awarded $15,000 as part of the 2018 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. The fix is an additive made from electrically charged polymers (“basically long molecules,” he says) that uses the power of science, and attraction, to make pesticide droplets stick to crops. The components used in Damak’s mixtures are FDA-approved, and since they’re made from plant and animal extracts, they’re also biodegradable–and safe to eat.
After a quick and inexpensive retrofit of pesticide applicators, whether handheld or tractor-mounted, farmers can use significantly less pesticide in their fields without harming their harvest.
“Farmers use many pesticides, depending on what kind of pests or disease they have in a particular year, but it’s usually on the order of 50 to 100 gallons per acre,” Damak says. “This solution could potentially take it down to 10 gallons per acre.”
Some of the farmers Damak has spoken with say that pesticides account for nearly 50% of production costs, so the cost savings on pesticides alone are enticing. And since pests account for about a 40% loss in global agricultural production, this solution should help increase yields, whether a farmer is growing strawberries, bananas, rice, or non-food crops like cotton. “We are still working on improving the chemical formulations in the lab, but theoretically, it could work on any plant anywhere,” he says.
There’s a health consideration, too. Today, growers from India to Indiana are forced to wait several hours or even days (even a whole week in case of raspberries) before re-entering fields or greenhouses after spraying pesticides, or risk hospitalization or death. This reduces their exposure to toxic chemicals.
Already, Damak has received interest from dozens of growers across the U.S. and abroad, but for now, his pesticide additive is being tested on just two farms: a citrus grove in Florida and a vineyard in Italy. The trials will begin this month and run through September 2018.