AI Is Becoming a New Weapon in the Battle Against Crop Pests

By Andrew Noël and Agnieszka de Sousa | February 4, 2021

Artificial intelligence already is making strides in the development of new drugs, and now the pesticide industry wants in on the action.

Switzerland’s Syngenta AG has teamed up with Insilico Medicine to use its deep-learning tools to produce sustainable weedkillers. As well as taking on some of the early-stage grunt work traditionally conducted in a lab, AI could design molecules used in crop-protection tools that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly, the companies said Wednesday.

AI is among new methods emerging as environmental and health concerns spur a quest for sustainable alternatives to traditional pesticides used by farmers. Demand also is being supported by regulatory pressures and lawsuits, most notably Bayer AG’s $11 billion settlement deal over claims its long-used glyphosate herbicide causes cancer.

“Our artificial intelligence is designed from the ground up to produce very precise chemistry to protect human health, while ensuring short-term and long-term safety,” Insilico Medicine Chief Executive Officer Alex Zhavoronkov said. “This expertise is extremely valuable for crop sciences.”

AI last year grabbed headlines after a unit of Alphabet Inc.’s Google took a giant step to predict the structure of proteins, which has potential uses for everything from drug research to designing enzymes that can break down pollutants.

More Collaboration

In agriculture, a backlash against traditional pesticides is spawning collaboration between chemical and biotech companies. Syngenta has been investing in biological solutions that utilize everything from microbes to insect sex pheromones to combat fungal infections and pests. The company wants to retreat from conventional chemicals into products less toxic to humans and more resilient to climate change, CEO Erik Fyrwald said last year.

FMC Corp. also wants to expand in biological solutions. The Philadelphia-based company has partnered with Denmark’s Novozymes A/S, which produces microbes that target pests. Pressure is mounting from regulators over the use of chemicals, and there’s a growing awareness among consumers for the need for sustainable products, Novozymes CEO Ester Baiget said.

Despite AI’s speed at crunching data, it’ll likely take years for new developments to reach the market without a change in regulatory environment.

“You can only be as fast as your slowest part, and today a big bottleneck to bringing in innovation is the regulation and qualification,” Baiget said.

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