Continued investment in research and development, specific to the turf industry, is the only route for further improvements in turf protection products. It remains crucial for the future availability of products essential for the maintenance of high quality playing surfaces. Without that investment, it will be increasingly difficult for UK turf managers to retain the quality surfaces that players at all levels have come to expect every day.
However, the discovery process is incredibly expensive and, quite literally, like looking for a needle in a haystack - a process that, typically, takes ten years and costs in excess of £175 million for each successful active ingredient identified.
Syngenta investigates some 250,000 active ingredients every year, with the knowledge that only two or three might reach the market place. And, even then, these might not be applicable for turf.
Then there is the exhaustive process of testing, refining, formulating, registering and manufacturing the product, before it ever reaches the end user for managing turf. Turf managers need to be confident that, when they use a product for an intended purpose - be that a fungicide to control disease or a herbicide to tackle weeds, it will do an effective and reliable job. Furthermore, it is imperative that it is safe for the turf, the operator and players.
The fact remains that the UK turf market is, relatively, extremely small and would never realistically justify the investment in attaining a specific new product. The turf and landscape part of our business has to be far smarter about identifying available chemistry that we think will be effective and give improvements over what is already available - either in terms of product efficacy or newer chemistry with reduced environmental impact.
However, we cannot simply translate one product from one crop or market to another. There's a common misconception that, what works in cereal crop production for example, will work in turf. But, highly managed turf is a completely unique environment that presents a completely different set of problems, compared to a field managed crop.
For example, speed of uptake is critical in turf where it is going to be cut within a few days of application, and where we need fast activity to stop leaf damage; in a field cereal crop which will be untouched for weeks, and where some disease spots are inconsequential, speed is not nearly such an issue.
There is also the crucial point of turf safety. We know, within Syngenta, that we have some incredible actives for disease and weed control but, whilst any physiological effects on the plant may be perfectly acceptable in crops, they would be totally unacceptable in turf, and could not gain approval for the market.
Without such intensive research and testing under as many variable conditions as possible, along with the rigorous turf specific registration process, there is a real risk that inappropriate chemistry could be brought to the market with less effective 'off-the peg' solutions.
In some instances, it may be that the active ingredient shows huge potential, but that we need to work on the formulation to make it more effective and, above all, safe for turf applications. Formulation is a key part of any product's efficacy, especially for turf, when even superficial phytotoxic leaf effects could prove extremely damaging, both visually and on playing quality.
We have to be able to demonstrate both a product's efficacy and its safety, backed by exhaustive tests and research, at the Syngenta Turf Research facility in Stein and UK specific trials by the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), independent agronomists and turf managers.
Syngenta recently invested over £5m on a new formulation robot installed at Jealott's Hill International Research Centre in Berkshire, which has the capability to rapidly test and develop turf-specific formulations. Not only will new products be optimised specifically for turf, but we can go back and look at reformulating older products that we know are good, but make them even better for turf.
Primo Maxx, for example, is probably the most widely researched and intensively developed product available for the turf market. Without the multi-million pound investment in the Maxx formulation, Syngenta would never have been able to recommend, or gain approval, for its use on amenity turf surfaces. Now, it is routinely used to enhance turf quality and improve management on most of the finest golf courses and sports playing surfaces across the UK and around the world. The years of research and money spent is largely forgotten by its users.
More recently, the launch of Rescue heralds a new opportunity to improve golf turf quality by selectively removing coarse Rye grass and leaving fine turf grass species untouched. That's an incredibly exciting opportunity for turf managers, where they can enhance playing quality far quicker and at lower cost than traditional cultural control.
But, it came at a very high price in terms of time and money to undertake the trials - on golf courses and with STRI - to identify the right product, along with the advice and information to enable turf managers to get the best possible results. In fact, significant costs were incurred during development, with trials using one selective herbicide active, only to find that it wasn't right for turf, and we had to go back to the chemists to find another option; that initial investment was written off as part of the commitment to find new solutions.
With more rigorous testing and environmental monitoring, along with the impending effects of new pesticide legislation, the options available to turf managers will inevitably decline. Instead, with the commitment of Syngenta in its turf specific R&D programmes, there will be new options that are both more effective, and meet the increasingly tough new demands of EU legislation.
The UK has a world renowned rigorous and robust registration system, which demands to know that any new product is both efficacious on the turf specific target, passes all risk assessments for potential exposure and the environment. That is great for giving the end-users the confidence in new products, but it requires the generation of a huge volume of scientific data. It has to be turf specific information and, with all the variables involved with turf management, it has to be proven for each country where the product is going to be used.
This registration process is a legal stipulation designed to safeguard the safety of operators, users and the environment. It overrides all other considerations and, rightly, cannot be circumvented.
But, investment and research is not just all about products, it's also looking how to get the best out of them. Looking to the future, the Amenity Forum has already identified that turf managers must adopt new stewardship measures to assure availability of turf protection products. That includes treatment justification, application technique, record keeping, reducing active ingredient loading, recycling packaging and other measures to mitigate the impact of pesticide use. In fact, many of those tools are already becoming available, thanks to the investment already put in place by Syngenta as part of its commitment to the turf industry.
Last year thirty of the UK's Premiership football club groundsmen visited the Syngenta Turf Research facility in Stein. They were truly fascinated and awestruck by the level of science involved and the scale of the investment involved.
At the time, Darren Baldwin, Head Groundsman at Tottenham Hotspurs Football Club, said: "the visit to the research centre was a real eye opener - the level of Syngenta R&D is quite amazing, and it was really helpful for us to understand what goes into the development and testing of chemicals before they reach the market."
Without due reward there will be no investment, and there will be no new innovation and advances for turf managers and players to enjoy.
For further information
Simon Elsworth, Syngenta
Head Golf & Landscape