Jealott's Hill Research Centre is the largest agribusiness research centre in the UK. It is here that pesticides, fungicides and other chemical products are tested prior to going to market.
The level and depth of research is intense. All too often we hear complaints about the cost of these products, but it is not until one sees the processes involved that you get to understand the various testing stages and just why the final product appears to cost so much. The end result is the production of a product that does what it claims on the tin but, most importantly, causes no harm to other crops, animals, insects and humans.
My visit was arranged by Scotts and Syngenta, who have seen many of their products come to market after just such long and hard testing regimes. The process can take up to twelve years, and at some considerable cost.
Here is how one of their latest products, Medallion TL, a bio-inspired contact plus acting fungicide, came through this process.
Just to set the scene, well over 50,000 chemical profiles will be tested at the start of the process, gradually reduced to the final one, which will be chosen for its unique performance qualities and characteristics, and all this at a cost of around $250m.
Jealott's Hill was founded in 1927, and has over eighty years of experience in plant sciences,
Syngenta's largest site for new plant protection, R&D, and product support, the Jealott's Hill campus is 25 hectares in size, with another 350 hectares of farming land used for trials and testing of agricutural products. The site employs over 600 staff.
Jim Morton, Education Officer for Syngenta, showed me around various areas of the site. I was shown the first stages of chemical testing, using Hit Discovery Screens. These screens detect a small number of active compounds amongst 50,000 inactive chemical compounds. Millions of combinations will be tested, not only on enzymes and receptors but also whole organisms - plants, insects and fungi. Compounds that show favourable results (usually around 10,000) then go through another series of tests, which are still miniaturised but now comprise the pest or pathogen on a small plant or leaf piece.
The next stage is optimisation/selection of 1000-2000 compounds. Promising chemicals are now tested on plants, insects or fungal diseases under conditions as close as possible to those in the growers' fields. The glass houses at Jealott's Hill can replicate any specific type of climatic conditions, including high rain fall. The skills of many researchers are required to convert a chemical lead into a development product
Development continues only if a good candidate has been found. i.e. one chemical compound. Once a potential product has been found, the aim is to bring it to market. Its full biological profile is established by intensive field tests around the world. A variety of formulations are now put together to improve its performance.
Registration and launch is the next stage. The large amounts of data generated throughout the long process are submitted for approval to independent registration authorities. The approval process is detailed and rigorous, and the sale of a product is only authorised when human and environmental safety is certain.
It was very interesting to see these areas of work, visiting the labs, chemical compound store and seeing the robots that mix and select various compounds for the trials.
I also visited the greenhouses to witness the different ways of growing and testing.
At the spray lab, I was shown how different spray nozzles that apply the end products are tested. It is important to be able to target the active ingredient efficiently and know that it will work under different weather conditions. Droplet size is an important issue - too fine a droplet will cause spray drift, whereas too large and a droplet may not attach itself to the target crop.
The formulation of the chemical is also vitally important, in that not only does it kill the pest but it is designed to adhere effectively to the target crop and not washed off easily, thereby reducing its efficiency.
Dr Simon Watson explained the technology behind their latest product, Medallion TL Contact Plus fungicide.
Fludioxonil, the active ingredient in Medallion TL, is a fungicide from the Phenylpyrrole chemical class. This group is derived from the natural antifungal pyrrolnitrin, produced by Pseudomonas pyrocinia soil bacteria. This active ingredient has been developed to ensure it is capable of controlling disease over a longer period.
Its mode of action has been designed to tackle the pathogens when on the leaf, in the thatch and on the soil surface. This has been achieved by clever formulation and using a specific droplet range to hit all three areas. Medallion does not leave any residue, i.e. whiting of the leaf.
However, the clever bit is in the design of the mode of action against the pathogen, acting as a protective shield that stops disease developing and prevents infection. When Medallion TL comes into contact with disease spores it disrupts osmoregulation, causing the disease pathogen cells to rapidly absorb water, to the point where they explode and are rendered harmless to turf. This can occur on the leaf, in the thatch or soil surface.
Bio chemically, the activity of Medallion TL inhibits spore germination and the growth of germ tubes, stopping fungal growth. This occurs at a time when disease spores are most sensitive, and before penetration of plant tissue causes leaf damage and spoils surface quality. The product has been trialled extensively at a number of golf clubs and sports venues with impressive results.
I was shown the results of the new spray nozzles that are recommended to use with this product, blue dye being used to clearly show the efficiency of the nozzles to deliver to the target area.
All in all, a very interesting day, and I came a way with the knowledge that vast investments in both time and money are made, by companies like Scotts and Syngenta, to help our industry deliver the high standards of turfcare that is now expected by all who work in the sportsturf sector.