Seeing beyond science-speak to grasp the true nature of crop protection chemicals
Lost in Translation
As a society, we have collectively grown very conscious of the ingredients used in the food we share and enjoy. Let’s say you pull an item off the shelf at the grocery store and see Lycopene, Ethylene, Tomatine, Citric Acid, Flavonoid, Naringenin, Anthocyanin, cis-3-Hexenal, and Phenylalanine ammonia-lyase listed as ingredients. It might give you pause. But while these ingredients may seem rather intimidating, they’re actually the all-natural chemical building blocks of your everyday tomato.
The same nuance exists for crop protection chemicals (e.g. pesticides), which are subject to careful analysis and regulation. However, as you get to know these solutions a bit better, you might be surprised to learn that many technical-sounding crop protection chemicals and other products are actually derived directly from nature.
When you understand how to crack the code of scientific names, they will seem far less intimidating. In essence, scientific naming follows a logical process, generating names that encourage a more thorough understanding of what something is, what it’s related to, and where it came from. In other words, when scientists name something, they build the name using information rather than worrying about how it sounds.
Consider the case of Zea mays—or “corn” for most of us. The common name may feel more familiar, but unlike its corresponding scientific name, “corn” doesn’t tell us anything about the plant’s development from grasses. The name Zea mays on the other hand can be broken down to place the plant within its specific taxonomy of fruiting grasses, meaning scientists can understand it’s close relationship to its parent plant maize as well as other corn varieties (e.g. Zea luxurians and Zea perennis). The name also separates it from similar plant families, for example drawing distinctions against other fruiting grasses such as rice (Oryza sativa). Because scientific names rely on a globally accepted set of guidelines and taxonomies, both scientists and curious consumers can easily understand the defining characteristics of an entity based on the name alone.
So, if we can get past how it sounds to access the information embedded into Zea mays, we can then begin to better understand the nature and components of many things, including crop protection chemicals.
Would you consider putting acetic acid on your food? How about vinegar? While the former sounds less appealing, these two names actually describe the same active ingredient—namely the chemical that gives vinegar its signature taste. This is just one of many examples of the difference between scientific and common names.
Scientific name: Phosphonate
In addition to agriculture, phosphonate compounds are also used in medicine as a foundational element of antiviral medications, including those that treat HIV, Hepatitis B and others.
To get a more holistic understanding of what crop protection chemicals are and where they come from, we can take glyphosate as an example. Since it first debuted in the agricultural market in 1974, glyphosate has become one of the most effective, and widely-used crop protection tools around the globe. In essence, glyphosate helps farmers protect their crops by blocking an enzyme pathway found in plants that enables them to make their food, ultimately causing the unwanted weed to wilt. To better understand what it’s made of, all we have to do is break down the name.
The “gly” in glyphosate stands for glycine, a common amino acid that acts as a building block for protein production. Glycine is naturally occurring in many of the foods we enjoy every day such as meat, fish, and dairy products. And, interestingly enough, if we don’t ingest the ideal amount of glycine on a daily basis, our bodies actually produce it from other chemicals already present.
That brings us to “phosate,” which stands in for the phosphonomethyl group, which include molecules comprised of phosphorus (P), carbon (C), oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H). Phosphonates are found throughout nature and help comprise the cellular membranes of numerous plants, insects, fungi, and other organisms.
Food is a simple and beautiful thing. It’s something we all share a stake in whether we’re farmers cultivating crops, parents feeding our children, or anyone in between. That’s one of the reasons why it’s natural to feel skeptical about crop protection tools when they are discussed in such complex-sounding ways. Despite how strange scientific names may sound to a non-scientific ear, if we know how to unpack the meanings and relationships they carry within them, we’re better able to understand the true nature of agrichemicals. And in doing so, perhaps we can even learn a bit more about the natural and essential role they play in helping farmers cultivate their crops while conserving resources.