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Why has biological control not been used more widely?

Despite widespread concerns about the impact of toxic chemicals on global pollution, biodiversity and human health, the consumption of conventional chemicals is still far outstripping that of sustainable alternatives. When we consider that – for some crops at least – biopesticides have been available since the 1980s, it begs the question… why has biological control not been used more widely?

The value of first impressions

Unfortunately, when biocontrol and biopesticide technologies started to be commercialised in the 1980s, there was a limited understanding by farmers and other end-users about how to use them. After several generations of farming in one way with chemical products, it is little surprise that end-users tried to use and apply biologicals in the same way.

Lacking an appreciation that biocontrol and biopesticide technologies might include living organisms, no consideration was given to temperatures, humidities or other environmental factors that would have impacted the survival and performance of the active microbes.

Adding to farmers’ frustration attempts to apply microbial products using conventional sprayers resulted in infamous reports of clumping and blocked equipment.  Consequently, these products – poorly applied – had equally poor efficacy when they were first commercialised nearly 40 years ago.

Sadly, these first impressions of failure had a negative impact on the uptake of biologicals, and many early users from that era determined never to use them again.

What has changed?

Probably the most important change is that biopesticide developers have recognised the need for better-formulated products. Recognising that biological products are often more ‘fragile’ than conventional chemicals, the past 20 years have seen significant advances in formulating these products in a way that ensures their survival, integrity and efficacy, during storage, mixing, application and on the field.

Many of these recent advances reflect the availability of novel modern technologies. At Bionema, for example, we have been working with the University of Birmingham’s Engineering Department on microencapsulation, with some great results. There are dozens of technologies from other industries – pharmaceuticals, for example – that can be applied to biocontrol, and working with institutions involved in those technologies in other areas can open a wealth of opportunities to our own sector.

The roots invated by the nematodes
The roots invaded by the nematodes

Bionema’s researchers are developing and advancing game-changing innovative biocontrol and biopesticide technologies for insect pests and disease control across agriculture, horticulture, turf and amenity, forestry and public health, to replace the use of toxic pesticides.

We work with a range of naturally occurring micro-organisms that are selected and formulated to deliver specific commercial attributes: higher virulence and efficacy, stability in storage and on the plant, higher spore yields, wider host ranges and better kill rates.

Bionema has used these formulation technologies to develop its own products, but also works in partnership with many other third-party companies, helping them to find the solutions they need to advance their own innovations and get them ready for commercialisation.

In addition to advances in formulation, another major change is that modern agricultural college courses are more frequently including modules on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and a new generation of farmers will soon emerge with a clearer understanding of biological agriculture.

In the meantime, numerous organisations and government programmes are working globally to educate farmers and smallholders about biocontrol and biopesticide technologies, and it is now widely recognised that any provider of biological products should offer end-user support.

It behoves us to ensure that our end-users are able to understand and follow storage and application methods that are optimised for the best possible results. At Bionema, we offer a consultancy service for our customers, including in-person and online training programmes. Bionema’s training programmes are developed by biological experts with years of practical experience in maximising the benefits of biological controls.

The combination of more educated end-users and better-formulated products offers a winning solution for biological agriculture. Modern biocontrol and biopesticide technologies can be applied using conventional application equipment, at ambient temperatures, and with far greater overall convenience and flexibility for end-users looking for great results.

Lady beetle larva, which are a natural biological control and feed on aphids among an aphid colony on a corn plant
Lady beetle larva, which is a natural biological control and feeds on aphids among an aphid colony on a corn plant

So is everything great now?

The good news is that the global biopesticide market is now growing 3.5 times that of the conventional pesticide market, and most analysts and experts agree that – ultimately – the future of agriculture will be biological. The length of time it takes us to reach that future will largely depend on the willingness of the industry to collaborate on novel technologies, and for regulators to hasten times and simplify processes for approval.

The biocontrol industry is dominated by small companies, innovators and entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas. However, those innovators might not have the best formulation expertise, or the best ability to get their ideas to market. It is important for companies within the biocontrol sector to develop links with other organisations with compatible or supportive technologies or abilities. By working together, we can advance the whole biocontrol sector and get more innovations to market, more quickly.

In addition, if biocontrol and biopesticide technologies are ever going to overtake conventional pesticides, biological products suited for large-scale agriculture and broad-acre crops are required. Biopesticides have demonstrated much success in high-value, speciality crops, but they have considerable potential in broadacre crops too. Several novel products have been evaluated for broadacre, but their adoption – along with the adoption of many new technologies – is being held back by the regulatory environment for new biopesticides.

There are continued problems with regulatory approvals of new natural and safe microbial alternatives. Current regulations in the vast majority of countries, including the EU, are still too expensive, still too slow, and still not suited to the biological entities under review. This is something that a number of trade organisations have been working to address, although little appears to have been achieved in the past 30 years.

In conclusion

Having fully developed our own range of biocontrol and biopesticide technologies, Bionema has experience in the full life-cycle of product development, from innovation, through formulation and regulation, to successful commercialisation. We are constantly partnering with third parties, and are always looking to make new connections that can help advance the sector. Get in touch if you would like to work with us… we’re waiting for your call.

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