Plant Resistance Breakthrough Could Have Implications for Western European Gardening Market

Dutch researchers have found a way to identify plant genes that are involved in resistance to certain insects. While this development has some potential to undermine pest control sales, it may boost the horticulture segment if consumers can be convinced to pay more for pest-resistant seeds.

In Search of the Right Stuff

Researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have developed a video tracking system that is capable of following the paths taken by insects around plant samples under standardised conditions. These paths can then be analysed to provide a measure of the attraction or aversion of these insects to each plant sample. Researcher Dr Maarten Jongsma said, “We can very quickly test a large number of plants for possible resistance … our goal [is] to make the method suitable for many specific insect-plant combinations.”

Pest Control Value Sales in Western Europe: 2009-2013 US$ Million (Constant 2013 Prices)

Source: Euromonitor International

With the researchers noting that, “Devastating insect pests and environment-malignant pesticides that are applied against them are still a major problem in agriculture and horticulture,” the system is currently being trialled on thrips, aphids and whiteflies with both edible and ornamental crops, with the aim of identifying genes that are involved in resistance to these pests. It is hoped that this system will be in commercial use within three years. According to plant pathologist Bass Brandwagt of breeder Royal van Zanten, who helped to develop this method, “This innovation is potentially a great support in breeding for insect resistance.”

Economic Weakness Undermines Sales

Both the pest control and horticulture segments of the Western European gardening market have had a hard time of late. Pest control value sales in the region peaked in 2011, but declined by 4.4% in real terms over the following two years, to US$758 million, with the Dutch, Spanish and French markets particularly weak. Over the same period, real value sales in the horticulture segment fell by 7%, to US$18.9 billion, with double-digit declines in both Spain and Italy. Economic weakness and uncertainty were the main drivers of these declines.

Creating a More Accessible Hobby?

Against the background of this demand weakness, what are the possible implications of the commercialisation of this technology in three or five years? Many affluent gardeners are likely to be willing to pay a premium for pest-resistant plants, so there should be a ready market for them at the right price, as are the growing number of GIY (grow-your-own) gardeners. The corollary of this will likely be a decrease in demand for pest control as a greener type of gardening becomes more mainstream. More broadly, by helping to make gardening a simpler and more user-friendly experience, this technology could also help to make the hobby more attractive to the uninitiated by flattening the learning curve somewhat for the neophyte gardener.