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Addressing the pressing need for alternatives to synthetic pesticides

The agriculture industry is facing a crisis as it tries to address the pressing need for alternatives to synthetic pesticides. At the Biopesticides Summit, which took place in Swansea, Wales, on 2–3 July, more than 200 international experts from the private and public sectors, academia, regulatory bodies and policy makers gathered to discuss challenges and opportunities in the biocontrol sector.
 
The need for change
Over the 20th century, unprecedented global population growth was enabled by medical advances and the advent of food security brought about by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, as explained by Shashi Sharma, Independent Consultant in Global Food Security (Australia), serious side effects included a decline in the area and quality of land resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions and – ironically – increasing incidents of pests and diseases as humans introduced and distributed them around the world.
 
This is why, declared Nathalie Bennett, former Leader of the UK Green Party, the world needs to change its farming systems. There is a distinct need for eco-friendly products that can safeguard the food value chain, agreed Sharma, concluding that biocontrol is a necessity for 21st century food systems.
 
A new age in agriculture
Typically made up of small enterprises, start-ups and entrepreneurial innovators, it’s fair to say that the biocontrol sector struggled to find a footing in an industry dominated by giants in the chemicals industry. The conservative nature of farmers, combined with an intransigent regulatory system, added to early obstacles, explained David Cary, Executive Director of the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association (IBMA; Belgium). However, as recent support has grown from society, stakeholders and governments, the sector now finds itself sitting at the table with policymakers, discussing a willingness for change.
 
That biocontrol technologies will be at the forefront of new developments is perhaps best represented by the regulatory situation, said Toby Bruce of Keele University (UK). Currently, more than 50% of new regulatory applications are biological plant protection products, and this percentage is only expected to rise. David Cary (IBMA, Belgium) added that 30% of tools currently available are already biological – the new age is dawning.
 
The sector is highly innovative, and is notably drawing on advanced technologies in other sectors. For example, Paul Dyson, Professor of Molecular Microbiology at Swansea University (UK) explained how RNA interference (disrupting a cell’s gene to protein information relay), introduced via symbiotic bacteria that live inside an insect’s gut, can be used to offer very species-specific biocontrol of insect pests. The University of Hertfordshire’s Keith Davies (UK) has been working with Pasteuria, an obligate parasite that prevents reproduction of problematic nematodes, while Nayem Hassan of Russell IPM (UK) shared insights into novel solutions for fruit fly control. Praharaju Laxminarayana, Managing Director of AgBio Systems (India) explained how his team has been tackling aquatic and terrestrial weeds with novel bioherbicides – so far a relatively untapped area, despite huge gaps in the market following regulatory issues with glyphosate, for example.
 
Encouraging the uptake of biocontrol agents across the world, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) is launching its Biopesticides Portal this month, said Steve Edgington, Principal Nematologist at CABI (UK). The platform offers free access to information about products registered in any particular country for specific crop pests and diseases. As well as providing promotional opportunities for biocontrol manufacturers looking to encourage wider uptake of their products, it is set to become the go-to resource for identifying and sourcing biocontrol products. By the end of 2019, it will be available in 20 countries across the world.
 
So, it all looks great for the biocontrol sector… or does it?
 
Challenge #1: Regulations
In fact, while regulators across the world seem enthusiastic about withdrawing synthetic pesticides, they can be frustratingly slow in replacing them with biological ones – especially in Europe. Dr Willem Ravensberg of Koppert (The Netherlands) highlighted the situation with three cases in which demands for data not relevant to biocontrol products, or bureaucratic issues, have led to unacceptable delays in Europe. In comparison, approvals in the US are three times faster, he said. As a result, while countries like the US and Brazil have seen about 60 new biocontrol products reach market in the past 2 years, Europe has seen just 28 in 8 years.
 
Dawn Williams of Innovative Environmental Services (IES; Switzerland) also noted that existing test guidelines are often inappropriate for the properties of these unique test substances. She stressed the need for dialogue with regulators to encourage greater flexibility, suggesting that there must be an opportunity to change the way things are done, in a way that suits this unique industry.
 
A big part of the problem, said David Cary (IBMA, Belgium), is that the skills for assessing biological products are different to those for synthetic chemicals. Some EU member states have geared up and have put biology/ecology experts (rather than chemistry experts) in place – states without this expertise simply shouldn’t be performing assessments of biocontrol products.
 
Nick Mole, Policy Officer at the Pesticide Action Network (UK) echoed the need to fast-track approvals, and to update the system. He was optimistic that these changes will be made due to shifts in attitude from the public and policy makers, citing new guidance already under development. Data requirements are also under revision to make it easier for biocontrol products to reach the European market. However, the sector must maintain pressure on regulators to ensure that these changes are made as quickly as possible.
 
Challenge #2: Implementation
Historically, biocontrol products have been criticized for a lack of efficacy. However, looking at how biocontrol products are used in the field, University of Warwick’s David Chandler (UK) has seen major issues with application, and a general lack of understanding in how to use them. He challenged manufacturers to improve labels and guidance, to help growers to get the best out of these products.
 
Andrew Brown of Andermatt (UK) agreed, pointing out that biocontrol products require more real-world knowledge for effective use, compared with synthetic chemistries which are more ‘forgiving’. Post-launch technical support is key to market development, he said, urging the sector to encourage knowledge transfer through the supply chain.
 
Part of the problem is a disconnect between the laboratory and the real world, said Jim Petta, President of Ecoflora (a member of the Gowan Group; USA). He stressed the importance of moving beyond the laboratory. Field understanding is critical to the adoption of biocontrol products, and researchers must connect the laboratory with real-world use and experience.
 
Minshad Ansari, CEO of Bionema, emphasized that a major challenge is the development of formulations that can be used with ‘normal’ application equipment. Growers invest heavily in machinery for the application of pesticides, and they expect to use the same equipment for biological agents. Therefore, formulations need to be improved, alongside practical knowledge about timing and other guidance for application (e.g. nozzle size dictates droplet size, which can have a significant impact on persistence and efficacy).
 
Challenge #3: Formulation
Implementation and application are strongly linked to formulation, agreed David Calvert, Director of iFormulate (UK). Although the fact that we are dealing with live actives must always be a consideration, issues in formulating biocontrol products are similar to those in other sectors, he insisted, so this is another area were the sector can draw on technologies developed in other industries.
 
For example, Zhibing Zhang, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham (UK) shared some of his group’s recent research, performed in collaboration with Bionema (UK) on a controlled release bioinsecticide using encapsulated fungal spores. Drawing from international groups’ work on drug delivery and microencapsulation, Zhang explained how encapsulation technology can address issues of maintaining viability of living microorganisms during processing and storage.
 
Felicity Lenyk explained how Eden (UK) has developed a natural formulation technology based on particles derived from yeast cells. The technology encapsulates the active ingredients and provides for sustained release – the capsule’s pores open when wet, but close again as it dries, effectively trapping the remaining active for later release. The technology is useful across a range of ingredients in a number of sectors, said Lenyk, and can certainly be applied to biocontrol products.
 
This latter natural example also overcomes a common challenge in that many substances added to formulations might not be organic, or compatible with the active organisms. Suspension concentrates (SC) and wettable granules (WG) are currently the most common formulations for microorganisms – both prevent the microbes from aggregating – explained David Calvert (iFormulate, UK). However, adjuvants can bring significant further benefits in terms of enhanced effectiveness and overcoming application limitations. Gary Adkins, Product Director at ECO-FP (UK), noted that in the biocontrol setting, adjuvants are particularly useful in enhancing coverage, reducing foaming, UV protection and helping to delay desiccation. Fortunately, he said, a small number of bioadjuvants are already available, and he expects more to enter the market – suitable for partnering with specific biocontrol agents – in the future.
 
As well as more organic and biocompatible additives and adjuvants, said David Calvert (iFormulate, UK), we can probably expect to see more combination products in the future. These will include mixes of more than one biological agents as well as hybrid biological–synthetic combinations. He also predicted the wider use of Picker emulsions/encapsulations, which use solid particles to stabilize formulations.  
 
Challenge #4: Size matters
The biocontrol sector is dominated by small enterprises and start-ups, which struggle in the face of regulatory challenges and financial pressures. This is why, said Minshad Ansari (Bionema), a key focus of the Biopesticide Summit was to encourage collaboration between academia and industry, to create the bonds needed for small companies to survive.
 
One platform that can help with this is the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN), explained Lawson Coombes, Innovation Specialist at EEN. This huge network helps companies to match with other suitable candidates for technology cooperation, joint ventures, commercial or manufacturing agreements. Covering 68 countries, this is a fantastic source of international market information.
 
In the UK specifically, the sector is supported by Innovate UK and its partners. For example, Chris Danks of the Knowledge Transfer Network’s Agri-Food Sector stressed his commitment to bringing together businesses, entrepreneurs, academics and funders to help find solutions through collaborative R&Ds. Harking back to earlier suggestions that the sector is notably drawing on advanced technologies from other areas of research, he noted that about half of the collaborations arranged by the Network involve partners from different sectors.
 
Such collaborations and resulting new business models may be imperative to the future of the biocontrol industry which, encouragingly, is clearly united in a common goal to address the pressing need for alternatives to synthetic pesticides.