Employing VOCs as an Eco-Friendly Solution for Crop Production and Protection in 2023

Technological advancements have helped farmers safely produce more crops over the years. The risk of pests spreading diseases and unwanted weeds decreases because of pesticides and herbicides. However, these chemicals often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).


How do VOCs harm humans and the environment? Can scientists harness positive qualities from them?


How Does Agriculture Harm the Environment?

Agriculture is a necessary part of economies worldwide. The number of farm workers has declined, but the industry still employs nearly 900 million people, or one-quarter of the world’s workforce.


Many countries, especially in Asia and Africa, depend on crop production to stimulate their economies. The demand for agriculture remains high as the world’s population exceeds 8 billion. However, it comes at an environmental cost.


Agriculture positively affects the environment but also has a negative impact. For example, the industry has significantly contributed to climate change through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Farming accounts for nearly 30% of the planet’s emissions worldwide, primarily from carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrogen oxides (NO2).


They derive from livestock, cutting down trees for farmland, burning fossil fuels for machines and other harmful practices.


What Are VOCs?

VOCs are chemicals that manufacturers include inside household products like aerosol sprays, air fresheners and more. These compounds are also prevalent in the agricultural industry inside pesticides, which go directly onto the crops. The chemicals protect the plant from pests, but VOC emissions harm the environment and humans.


Issues arise with VOCs when they vaporize into the atmosphere, contributing to air pollution. They react with NO2 and produce smog in the air. States like California have restricted pesticide use because of VOC concerns and seek to reduce their emissions and environmental impact.


How Do VOCs Affect Humans?

VOCs can adversely affect human health in the short and long term. Agriculture workers encounter VOCs with pesticides and exhaust emissions, but people are also at risk in areas they might not realize.


For example, the paint on their walls may expose them to VOCs. The short-term effects of VOC vapors include irritated throats, noses and eyes. People may experience nausea and headaches.


The effects of VOCs can be much more severe in the long term. Scientists have labeled some compounds as carcinogenic, including formaldehyde and benzene. Studies have shown that high concentrations of these VOCs increase cancer risk. Formaldehyde is common in wallpaper, paint, pressed wood and foam insulation, and benzene threatens agriculture because it’s in pesticides, crude oil and gasoline.


What Are VOC Alternatives?

VOCs negatively affect humans and the environment, so some farmers look for ways to reduce or omit them completely. Methods for lowering harmful VOCs include:


  • Low-VOC treatment: A prominent strategy for reducing emissions is to use low-VOC pesticides. This treatment option allows for more sustainable agricultural practices and better air quality on the farm. 
  • Lower dosage: Sometimes, pesticides may be necessary or the most affordable option for a farmer. In that case, it’s wise to reduce the amount used by spot treatment. Some agriculturalists use technology like crop-spraying drones to target particular crops and be more efficient with their application.
  • Alternate pest remedies: Pesticides are convenient for farmers, but there are other ways to prevent pests. For example, cover crops have proved to be effective. They also use crop rotation because each type of plant attracts different pests. Therefore, they can starve the insects waiting for a particular crop when rotating.

Do VOCs Have Positive Qualities?

Though VOCs have negative qualities, there are some positive effects agriculturalists can harness. These compounds may be necessary for the world to move forward. Experts from the United Nations (UN) project the world population to reach 10.4 billion by the end of this century. That number has declined from 11 billion originally, but it will still significantly strain the world’s food supply as the century progresses.


The past couple of centuries saw significant leaps in American agriculture as new technology like hydraulics, tractors and other automobiles became more prominent. There was also progress on the biology side with research on genes and better practices with crop rotation. More improvement will be necessary if the industry can keep up with growing demand. The solution may come from VOCs.


How Do VOCs Benefit Plants?

VOCs typically have a negative connotation because of their negative impact on humans. However, plants also emit them, and they’re necessary for survival. These three benefits show why plants need VOCs.


1. Combating Stress

Many plants emit VOCs naturally. In fact, they’re critical in crop evolution. VOC emission is a primary way for plants to defend themselves against pests. Crops can have abiotic or biotic stress. Abiotic stress may come from temperature or drought, whereas biotic stress comes from insects, weeds, herbivores, bacteria and other organisms.


They emit VOCs to communicate among their organs and other plants. This process allows plants to prepare themselves for stressful situations, otherwise known as priming.


2. Priming

VOCs are essential to plants because of their role as priming stimuli. Abiotic and biotic stress cause reactions in crops, and the VOC emission primes them to be ready for similar situations in the future. Agriculture professionals who prime their plants see better results with crops that withstand outside factors.


3. Preventing Pathogens

Another vital benefit of VOCs for plants is the limitation of pathogens. Some VOCs have been effective in stunting the growth of various harmful bacteria, viruses and microorganisms. They’re beneficial for fruits and vegetables, considering the amount lost in production. Fungicides like sulfur dioxide inhibit fungal growth, protect crops and remain environmentally friendly.


How Can Agriculture Use VOCs?

The agricultural sector has trended toward more sustainable practices in growing crops. This movement typically includes lowering environmentally harmful methods in farming. However, farmers can utilize new technology to employ VOCs positively.


For example, one primary method is proton-transfer-reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS). This process involves detecting VOCs in the air nearly instantaneously. Farmers can comprehensively look at their plants’ VOC emissions using PTR-MS and isolate the ones causing positive and negative effects. Agriculture professionals could also examine crops without harming them, allowing for changes if abiotic and biotic stressors arise.


Another possible solution is intercropping. This practice entails pairing two types of crops in proximity to each other. Specifically, farmers could pair plants that emit different types of VOCs. The objective is to prime other plants and build their resistance to dangerous pests. One crop could act as a sentinel or monitoring figure, helping others by sending stress signals and priming them to become more resilient in future situations.


Using VOCs in Beneficial Ways

The term VOC likely has a negative correlation with many. The types of VOCs people see in paint, oil and gasoline negatively affect their health. In agriculture, pesticides with VOCs harm the air by causing smog. However, there are positive applications for these organic compounds.


Many plants emit VOCs by themselves and use them in response to biotic and abiotic factors. Agriculture professionals can use them to their advantage with PTR-MS, priming and intercropping. These practices are necessary as the demand for food grows with the population and climate change harms crops worldwide.


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