Spider venom inspires new farming methods

Venomous spider
Image caption Scientists are looking to nature to find solutions to combat pests which afflict crops

Producing food will undoubtedly get more difficult and expensive as the combined challenges of climate change and scarce energy resources start to bite, but venom from poisonous spiders has inspired new technologies which can help to solve the problem of feeding the world's growing population.

The ever-increasing demand for food is attracting investment to fund new agricultural technologies, resulting in a new generation of pesticides based on how spiders kill their prey being developed by the US company Vestaron.

"It revolves around peptides," explains chief executive Steven Hartmeier. "They are naturally occurring compounds in nature that spiders use to control... insects.

"We are taking products that nature provides to control the pests that attack crops."

He firmly believes there is a viable market for new bio pesticides.

"Governments in the US and Europe are regulating some pesticides out of existence so there is a need for environmentally sustainable products to replace them," he says.

The venom of a single spider can contain many thousand distinct peptide toxins and his company has identified peptides that attack insects which specifically chew on vegetables, fruits and vines.

"They don't have any environmental characteristics that would be perceived as negative," he says. "They don't have any activity on mammals, fish, birds or wildlife."

The initial product is being targeted at high-value crops, but the peptides in question are not collected from millions of individual spiders.

"We take peptides and introduce it to yeast, and the yeast produces more peptides which we then harvest."

Crops 'protecting themselves'

Apart from 'spider venom' pesticides targeting insects, crops themselves are also being developed that actually kill the insects which attack them.

A process known as genetic marking has refined the traditional plant breeding process, enabling the giant Swiss agro-business Syngenta to accelerate the breeding process of new plants and seeds.

Unlike genetic modification, where the genome of a plant is deliberately altered, genetic marking simply identifies whether or not a desirable characteristic such as being tolerant to drought or producing higher yields, has been successfully cross-bred into a plant.

It means that scientists can know the answer immediately and do not have to wait for several generations of crops to see if the desired characteristic is working.

"We are not talking about bigger tomatoes - we are working to improve the qualities of a whole range of plants such as beans, corn, barley, cereals and wheat, in a natural way," says the company's Dr John Atkin.

More than 60 different insects and diseases can attack a soya bean crop during its life cycle and he says that over the past decade, this genetic marking process has significantly increased soya bean production in Argentina and Brazil.

"We can cross-breed crops so they are not only insect repellent, but which actually destroy any insect that feeds on them," he says.

Simpler solutions

The majority of the world's farmers are in the developing world who cannot afford expensive new seeds or fancy new pesticides.

But there are ways their output can be dramatically increased too.

The key, says Dr Kanayo Nwanze at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a United Nations agency dedicated to eradicating rural poverty in developing countries, is understanding the social context in which these farmers work.

While acknowledging the benefit of generating crops which are tolerant to drought or which produce bigger yields, he says many simple ideas can make a big difference.

"Biotechnology is a tool, it is not a magic bullet," he asserts.

Image caption Many farmers have no access to new technology and rely on old methods to produce their crops

"Teaching farmers how to dig little planting pits to be able to accumulate rainwater and increase filtration rates for plants in dry areas is equally as important as the new technologies," he says.

The cost of fertilizer can be prohibitive for many farmers, but one innovation is to place bottle-cap quantities of fertilizer in the planting pits and this has resulted in two or three-fold increases in yields.

"The issue of hunger is not as simple as increasing production and productivity," he says.

"Do farmers have access to financial services? Do they have access to storage facilities? Do they have access to markets?"

He points out that farmers should be encouraged to organise themselves into co-operatives.

"Individually they are powerless," he says. "Individuals farmers don't have collateral. It is very expensive for one farmer to buy a ton of fertilizer but, as a group, they have the power to get financial services."

Whatever controversy surrounds genetic modification, whatever benefits genetic marking might bring, the issue of how to produce more food for a growing population ensures that new technologies will continue to play a major role in farming.

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