Scientists and vintners are exploring using UV lights, now being employed in HVAC systems to reduce the threat of COVID-19, as a weapon against mildew on grapevines.
Writing in a recent Wine Spectator article, Lynn Alley, reports that Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, was installing an ultraviolet light component to his HVAC system in the winery, to protect both staff and customers against COVID-19 when inspiration struck. “The light bulb went off when we started researching the UV light to kill COVID,” said Bernau. “It reminded me of the research I’d been reading about for years on using UV light to kill pathogens in the vineyard.” Alley goes on to write that: “Bernau, like most organic and sustainable growers, uses organic Sulphur to control powdery mildew in his Oregon vineyards. Many other vintners employ chemical fungicides. According to the Robert Mondavi Institute Center for Wine Economics at U.C. Davis, powdery mildew currently accounts for an estimated 74 percent of total pesticide applications by California grape growers. The fungicides are costly and environmentally unfriendly, plus the fungus typically adapts to the fungicides within a few generations, requiring heavier applications or changing formulas.”
An international consortium of scientists known as the Light and Plant Health Project, led by David Gadoury, a plant pathologist at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, N.Y., has developed an inexpensive answer. Gadoury has spent his entire career looking for ways to keep plants healthy. Although scientists have known for several years that UV light will kill bacteria, viruses and fungi, just exactly how to apply their finds in a working field or vineyard has been a challenge. “Research in using UV light to kill the powdery mildew pathogens is not new,” Gadoury said. “But it has accelerated with the discovery that UV is much more effective when applied at night.” Gadoury and his team have found that mounting UV lights on tractors or sending self-driving robots into the vineyards at night can scramble the mildew’s DNA and kill it faster, safely, and more efficiently than costly fungicides. “What makes it possible for us to use UV to control these plant pathogens is that we apply it at night,” Gadoury said. “At night, the pathogens don’t receive blue light and the DNA repair mechanism isn’t working.”
The team has partnered with SAGA Robotics in Norway to develop the first commercial robot fitted with UV lights. The Norwegian robots are autonomous vehicles fitted with an array of lamps. “Our initial assessment is that an autonomous vehicle will make UV light application far less expensive than the current seven- to 10-day application of organic sulfur via tractor and sprayer with operator,” said Bernau. “There is another significant advantage. Our spray windows vary due to the Willamette Valley’s periodic rainy or windy weather conditions, frustrating the best timing for applying sulfur via tractor and sprayer. The application of UV light is not restricted by weather.”
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