How DMU research is helping farmers cut pesticide use

Drones and smart systems are being used help farmers spot and stop plant problems earlier – helping cut pesticide use and earn growers more money.

De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) is working with colleagues around the world to help palm oil plantation farming become more sustainable by improving crop management, reducing chemical use and providing farmers with financial safety nets through index insurance, designed to help protect against risks to the crop.

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Researchers have created an algorithm which can analyse images taken by low-altitude drones of the plants to spot signs of disease, allowing faster and more accurate diagnosis.

The programme is also able to predict how the problem spreads throughout the field, helping show where the issue may show up next and allowing the farmer to target treatment rather than using insecticides or pesticides on the whole plantation.  

DMU’s Professor Mario Gongora is working with colleagues at two universities in Colombia on the project, the early stages of which were funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Council.

He said: “This is a collaborative project to improve the sustainability of the palm crops. Farmers will spray less because they will target areas instead of blanketing the whole crops. These are huge plantations, 10,000 hectares which would have millions of plants so having the ability to pin point where the farmers treat the plants is very important.

“Optimising the management of the current plantations will allow them to increase production without increasing the requirements of land and avoiding deforestation of natural habitats.”

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Professor Alejandro Pena, of the Universidad EAFIT, is hoping to use the algorithm to help set up an index insurance system for the farmers.

Instead of traditional insurance where claimants have to prove what they have lost, index insurance uses a predetermined measure to determine when a payout is made. This is based on factors like crop health and weather data. It can be cost less in premiums and payments are triggered automatically so farmers get help faster.  

Dr Isis Bonet, from the Universidad EIA, is looking at how the programme can be used to identify the precise moment that the plant reaches full ripeness, so that farmers can extract more – and better quality - oil from the same fruit yield.

“There are many applications for this project which can benefit the farmers in Colombia,” said Professor Gongora. “The technology is there and through our research we can discover ways in which it can give practical support to help raise incomes and give bigger yields while using less chemicals and pesticides.”  

Posted on Monday 8 January 2024

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