Quest for new plant protection substances mirrors search for new drugs

The costly, often-frustrating quest for new ways of preventing and treating diseases that strike vegetables, fruits, and other food crops bears striking similarity to the better-known saga of the pharmaceutical industry’s pricey search for new drugs for humans. That’s the topic of an article in the current edition of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), ACS’ weekly newsmagazine.

C&EN Senior Business Editor Melody M. Bomgardner points out that the R&D investment in new herbicides, fungicides, and other plant chemicals almost rivals that for human pharmaceuticals on a one for one basis. It costs about $256 million to develop a new herbicide or fungicide, for instance, compared to almost $1 billion, by some estimates, for a new drug.

The article explains that global sales of agricultural chemicals now approach $40 billion per year, but the development of new products has slowed. One reason: The development of crops such as Roundup Ready soybeans — genetically-engineered to withstand high-levels of herbicides — has reduced use of traditional chemical-based pest control. Scientists still are seeking new herbicides, however, because some weeds show signs of developing resistance to the new herbicides Government safety regulations are another reason that the number of new agricultural chemicals in the pipeline has dipped.

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