Drought, diseases, and fungi. These are factors that farmers have no control over, and they often have to watch despondently as their crops are damaged. In addition, the practice of breeding plants in special and strictly controlled conditions, has resulted in crops losing the chemical ability to protect themselves in nature.

Researchers in the Department of Soil, Crop, and Climate Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) have developed an organic agent that restores this chemical imbalance in plants. It enables the plant to build its own resistance against mild stress factors, and thus ensures increased growth and yield by the plant.

ComCat, a plant-strengthening agent, is the result of extensive research by the German company, Agraforum, together with the UFS. Commercialisation was initially limited to Europe, while research was done at the UFS.

"Plants have become weak because they were grown specially and in isolation. They can't protect themselves any longer," says Dr Elmarie van der Watt from the department.

Dr Van der Watt says that, in nature, plants communicate by means of natural chemicals as part of their resistance mechanisms towards various stress conditions. These chemicals enable them to protect themselves against stress conditions, such as diseases and fungi (biotic conditions) or wind and droughts (abiotic conditions).

Most wild plant varieties are usually well-adapted to resist these stress factors. However, monoculture crops have lost this ability to a large extent.

The European researchers extracted these self-protection chemicals from wild plants, and made them available to the UFS for research and development.

"This important survival mechanism became dormant in monoculture crops. ComCat wakes the plant up and says ‘Hey, you should start protecting yourself'."

Research over the last few years has shown that the agent, applied mostly as a foliar spray, subsequently leads to better seedlings, as well as to growth, and yields enhancement of various crops. This is good news for the agricultural sector as it does not induce unwanted early vegetative growth that could jeopardise the final yield – as happened in the past for nitrogen application at an early growth stage.

"The use of synthetic agents, such as fungicides which contain copper, are now banned. Nowadays, options for natural and organic agriculture is being investigated. This product is already widely used in Europe, but because farmers are often swamped by quacks, the South African market is still somewhat sceptical."