Dixon on ... why horticulture needs chemistry

This is the Year of Chemistry, an international celebration of achievements responsible for improving all our lives. What does this mean for horticulture?

Horticulture is like the control plant, either for the benefit of our surroundings or for our health and welfare. Hundreds of chemical reactions happen every moment in plants as they grow and respond to their environment - often environments we have designed. Slowly we are learning to appreciate the complexity of relationships between plants and these environments. An invasion of pests, for example, triggers a release of chemical messengers that are warning signals to neighbouring plants.

Some horticulturists seem chemistry-averse, not admitting its role in all aspects of plant life. Yet landscape designs succeed by reliance on chemical nutrition and physiology in the same way as cabbage and carrot crops. Basic pathways of nutrient use are similar in organic and conventional crops. Moves towards sustainably stable forms of integrated crop or landscape management only add emphasis to these commonalities.

Horticulture is served well by the agro-chemical and fertiliser industries. Huge investments in research and development are their response to the market pressures constraining crop production or landscape design. Consumers' demands for reduced residues and greater safety have produced some very elegant chemistry. Naturally-produced chemical messengers are being tailored as new pesticides with increased efficacy, decreased dose rates and better environmental protection.

Fertiliser manufacturers provide specialist formulations capable of low-level drip delivery that minimises ground water contamination. Some fertilisers even limit soil nitrification, safeguarding nitrate-vulnerable zones.

Chemistry is economically, socially and scientifically important - why else would China produce 15,000 graduates annually? Horticulture would do well to celebrate with the chemists.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene International.


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Professor Geoffrey Dixon

GreenGene International chair Geoff Dixon on the business of fresh produce production
 

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