BioProtection: current opportunities and challenges
Minshad A Ansari, PhD*,**, and Sarah J Harding, PhD*
In the 20th century, an agricultural revolution aimed at ensuring global food security for a rapidly expanding world population led to remarkable uptake of chemical pesticides across the world. As farmers happily sprayed their crops with an array of chlorinated hydrocarbons, organophosphates, and carbamates, it was widely believed that applying chemical pesticides could eradicate pests, increase crop yields, and generally solve all problems caused by pests in agriculture.
However, by the second half of the century, concerns were emerging about the environmental harm caused by chemical pesticides (Carson, 1962), effectively challenging the notion that chemicals brought benefits with minimal risk. As evidence for their harmful effects grew, chemical pesticides were shown to damage natural biodiversity, pollinators and other beneficial insects, environmental and human health.
As a result, a growing number of chemical pesticides have been (and continue to be) removed from the market due to their toxicity. For example, DDT was banned in 2005 due to its accumulation up the food chain (Beard, 2006), while glyphosate (the world’s most commonly used herbicide) has been identified as a human carcinogen (Kogevinas, 2019). Governments across the world now want to reduce the use of chemical pesticides in farming.
The European Union (EU) wants a 50% reduction by 2030 (European Commission, 2020), and initiatives proposed by the French Priority Research Program Growing and protecting crops differently and the European Research Alliance Towards a Chemical Pesticide-Free Agriculture set new goals to target pesticide-free agriculture by 2040. China has also adopted a ‘Zero-Growth’ action plan for pesticides and fertilisers by reducing excessive applications of fertiliser and blind application (Shuqin and Fang, 2018). The USA utilises voluntary cancellation as the primary method of reducing pesticide use, contrasting with the regulator-initiated reductions and bans that predominate in the EU and China (Donley, 2019).
Removing toxic pesticides from our farming practices can surely only be a good thing for the environment and our health. However, in an agricultural industry that is centred around monoculture and intensive farming practices, the removal of these products is leaving a huge gap in farmers’ abilities to manage crop pests and diseases, making it impossible for countries to meet the ambitious targets
they have set.
The situation is exemplified by the recent EU case of neonicotinoids banned for use on crops outdoors. The ban was intended to protect bees and other pollinators. However, without neonicotinoids, farmers were unable to control several pests and diseases, such as virus yellows disease in sugar beet, forcing several countries to sign emergency authorisations that allowed farmers to use neonicotinoids after all (DEFRA, 2022). Similar challenges on the other side of the world underlie Brazil’s controversial bill (PL 6299/2002)
which, if approved by the Federal Senate, will relax current legislations on pesticide use (Piovesan, 2022).
In the absence of alternative tools to effectively control crop pests and diseases, plans to reduce chemical pesticide use are unrealistic. Alternative solutions must be available to fill the gaps in the market.
Biological crop protection, or ‘bioprotection’ (also known as ‘biocontrol’ and biopesticides), aims to control agricultural pests and diseases while avoiding harm to the environment, non-targeted species, and human health (Hulot and Hiller, 2021). Harnessing natural resources and relationships (eg natural enemies of pests) results in highly targeted measures that have minimal adverse effects on other organisms. Soil quality and health benefit from reduced toxic residues and contamination, and beneficial impacts on human health (both consumers and farmworkers) can also be identified.
Bioprotection, which can be used as part of an organic farming system, can be very effective, and it is compatible with other cultural control methods and approaches to Integrated Pest Management (IPM). These products can be easy to apply using conventional spraying equipment, and they should provide a solution to filling gaps in the market left by banned chemical pesticides. Using bioprotectants as part of an IPM approach can result in long-term pest control that is less risky to farmers and the environment while reducing chemical pesticide use by 90% (Ansari et al., 2007).
As well as growing gaps in the market due to banned chemical pesticides, increasing demand for bioprotectants is driven by consumer demands for organic food. Globally, only 1.6% of the farmland is organic (Willer et al., 2022). The highest organic shares of the total agricultural land, by region, are in Oceania (9.7%) and the EU (9.2%). Australia boasts 35.7 million ha of agricultural land, compared with 4.5 million ha in Argentina, 2.7 million ha in Uruguay, 2.5 million ha in France and 2.4 million ha in Spain. However, demand for organic product is driven by the US and EU; in 2020, countries with the largest organic markets were the US (€49.5 billion), Germany (€15.0 billion) and France (€12.7 billion).
Reflecting the opportunities presented to the sector, bioprotectants are one of the fastest growing areas of plant protection products (Table 1).
The market for bioprotection companies is also buoyant. Analogous to recent trends in Big Pharma, which saw multinational drug giants acquire innovative Biotech, there is a growing interest on the part of multinational chemical companies to acquire small bioprotection companies. The bioprotection sector is dominated by start-ups and university spin-offs, making them highly agile and innovative, but small enough for multinationals to ‘snap up’ easily (Table 2).
This vibrant market for bioprotection products (and companies), driven by consumer demand and government initiatives and
targets, presents a series of opportunities to change the global agricultural industry, for good. For every chemical pesticide on
the market, it should be possible to discover or develop a biological alternative. When applied and used correctly, bioprotectants can be at least as effective as their chemical counterparts, without the associated chemical hazards.
For any crop protection product to work optimally, it must be formulated in a manner that enhances shelf life, protects the biological active from environmental factors, enables compatibility with conventional farm machinery, and optimises persistence,
adherence and efficacy in the field. As with chemical pesticides, this generally involves the use of co-formulants – wetting agents,
dispersants, emulsifiers, and anti-foaming agents, for example, commonly added to pesticide products or spray mixtures to enhance their performance and physical properties. Through expert formulation, these products can have a significant impact on performance (Green and Foy, 2004).
Finding the right adjuvants for biological products can be a particular challenge, especially when dealing with microbial agents. As well as providing the required optimising effects, adjuvants must be compatible with the active organism and suited to its application technique. The development of innovative biocompatible adjuvants is currently a market need, presenting a great opportunity to formulators with the expertise to develop those products.
Advanced formulation technologies such as microencapsulation are enabling better product viability, application and persistence, while tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) for IPM, are enabling the development of technologies such as weeding robots and automated drones for crop scouting and spraying. Using such advanced modern technologies to optimise product development, formulation and application, the efficacy and persistence of biological crop protection solutions have never been better
SPECIAL FEATURE: Biocontrol and IPM
In addition, AI allows accelerated development times and/or achieves performance levels in complex systems in a
short time. For example, BASF is using an interactive decision support framework that assists lab researchers in finding optimal product recipes within fewer experimental iterations, while FMC’s focus on automation control and AI has led to breakthroughs such as its 3RIVE 3D® “foam” application, PrecisionPac®.
To date, most success with bioprotectants has been achieved in protected environments such as glasshouses and high value crops, which tend to be grown in lower volumes. However, recent developments in formulation technologies, such as those described above, are allowing the sector to move into higher-volume field crops. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)-based products and pheromones have been used for caterpillar and moth control in open fields. With that move comes tremendous increases in volume and revenue, making bioprotection the new ‘big business’ in crop protection.
In order to realise its terrific potential, the bioprotection sector must work to overcome several challenges relating to innovation, regulation and commercialisation.
Although recent years have seen a number of advances in formulation techniques, there is still a long way to go in innovation.
In particular, a limited range of available biological products is leading to the continued use of pesticides. As shown in Table 3, there are considerable differences by work region in the number of available biological products approved for use.
A key reason for the lack of biological alternatives is that the industry is struggling with complicated, lengthy, and costly regulatory processes (WBF, 2022). Presently, in order to obtain approval of an active biological substance in most parts of the world, an applicant must follow procedures that are not dissimilar to those for chemical pesticides (albeit slightly adapted for biological products rather than chemicals). This includes the preparation of a detailed dossier, based on extensive tests and stringent data requirements, and its subsequent review and evaluation by the relevant regulatory authority. The evaluation of a new biological product should take about 12–22 months but, in reality, it typically takes up to 5-6 years in the EU (WBF, 2022).
The situation is particularly frustrating because many biological active substances (bioderived chemicals and microbes) are
well-documented, and significant parts of a dossier could comprise information from published literature, saving the time and expense of unnecessary tests. For example, it might be reasonable to waive data on residues, environmental fate, and ecotoxicology in some cases. For many bioprotectants, formulation components are inert, or of no toxicological concern, so risk assessments could reasonably be based on the active substance alone. For groups of organisms with common properties, exchangeability of data could reduce registration time and facilitate the more rapid introduction of new bioprotectants.
Until regulators agree to reform requirements for new bioprotectants, this will continue to be a major obstacle to new products reaching the market.
The limited range of products available, and a lack of trust on the part of farmers (due largely to poor efficacy of early products
that were not formulated or applied properly) has led to poor uptake. The bioprotection sector must ensure that products ‘sold’ are always ‘supported’ by training and advice to ensure optimal use and outcomes. Numerous studies have demonstrated that
programmes employed to educate farmers about biological control of crop pests and diseases can result in better outcomes (Williamson, 1998), which will in turn build trust and greater uptake of bioprotectants.
As a result of these issues, and regulatory hurdles, both of which contribute to fears over low returns on investment (ROI), investors frequently do not see bioprotection companies as viable business opportunities. As the sector is dominated by start-ups and university spin-offs, this is a problem because many of these small companies do not have the funds required to get their products through the regulatory system and to the market. Especially until regulatory requirements are simplified to make them faster and less expensive, in order for more bioprotection products to reach the market, greater collaboration between bioprotection companies and external investors or partners will be required.
Organisations such as the World BioProtection Forum are working to help the bioprotection sector overcome these challenges by encouraging collaboration across all stakeholders in the bioprotection sector, to ensure the successful development and commercialisation of these products.
The WBF is also leading a campaign for regulatory reform in the UK and is positioned to guide the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on their upcoming regulatory reforms for new biological crop protection products. The WBF spotted the opportunity to impact UK regulatory reform when the UK Government announced its intention in 2021 to have a ‘lighter touch’ with ‘reduced red tape’ post-Brexit. Once those reforms have been achieved, the UK will be used as a case for global reform in other countries. At the same time, the WBF is working to promote opportunities for Global Harmonisation for the registration of new bioprotectants.
The bioprotection sector is young and vibrant, with huge potential. However, in order to achieve that potential, it must overcome challenges relating to innovation, regulation and commercialisation. If it manages to do so, it has every chance of filling the gaps
left by banned chemicals – it is not totally beyond the realms of possibility to imagine a future with no chemical pesticides at all.