An opinion on the challenge of biological crop protection

Editor's Note: The article posted here comes from a French-based company. Alcimed is a company that boasts it specializes in "innovation and new business consulting and reviews the challenges of biological plant protection products as an alternative to the chemical equivalents in agriculture." The article gives some insight into thinking from a European point of view about pesticides but also notes the scientific dilemma from this company's point of view.

The world population growth aggravates global food shortage, as has been emphasized with the theme "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" during the Milan's World Expo that took place in May - Oct., 2015.

The use of plant protection products (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) that lie in the basis of agricultural development is now being questioned. Allowing for higher yields, better product appearance and flavor, plant protection products have played a major role in the development of modern agriculture. Since 1950s, France has been one of the leading countries in using crop protection products, after the U.S. and Japan. Newly industrialized countries, such as China and Brazil, have also become major plant protection product users. The global market is currently estimated at over $40 billon.

The intense use of chemical plant protection products has negative impact: polluting soil and groundwater, leading to pesticide resistance, and affecting human health. According to the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance, the high levels of serum polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) among French are a "historical legacy of pollution (...) still present." As a result, criticism of such chemical products has increased, examples provided by recent Greenpeace actions and publications.

Development of biological control offers alternative solutions yet raises new challenges

Alternative solutions for plant protection, such as GMOs or biological control agents, have been researched. In view of French moratorium on GMOs, in 2008, France launched the Ecophyto plan, whose objective is to reduce the use of pesticides by 2018, while ensuring a high quantity and quality of produce.

Alternative solutions developed for crop protection include use of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, yeast), which are used to conrtol pests and predators. This approach is based on natural mechanisms of action to fight crop enemies and have limited or no harmful effects.

However, biolgocal control faces a number of challenges. First of all, its efficiency is still lower than that of chemical counterparts, especially when it comes to large-scale protection. Moreover, the impact on the ecosystem and safety for humans have yet to be validated for many biological products, as we are still lacking sufficient perspective on their use. In addition, the use of the biological control can prove to be complex and provide a set of constraints for farmers. For example, many biological plant protection products are preventative and have limited duration of action (in contrast to their chemical counterparts that provide curative control), requiring better planning and greater accuracy of usage. Finally, biological plant protection solutions are still generally more expensive than the chemical ones, and, therefore, can be difficult to match the economic needs of plant growers.

Increasing engagement of industry stakeholders together with research players

To meet the demands and future regulatory objectives, the industry players rally for the development of new solutions. For example, the Biopesticide Industry Alliance brings together major players in the sector (BASF, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Monsanto, Valent BioSciences etc.), small and medium-sized enterprises, and scientific players.

French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) launched the Ecological Management of Bioagressors in Agroecosystems (EMBA) network in 2014. It aims to find solutions for the ecological management of pests in agroecosystems by providing a central place to industrial players (e.g. Agrauxine, Bayer CropScience, InVivo AgroSolutions, Natural Plant Protection, and OMEGA). French manufacturers are not left aside; for example, Limagrain carries out the Aseeds projectto develop alternative seed treatments for corn and wheat using biological control products.

"The development of biological crop protection solutions seems to be on track, but there are still many challenges at all levels, from technical innovations to adaptation among famers to efficiently use the products. Therefore, we expect several years of coexistence of both chemical and natural products with gradual transition towards the latter," concludes Mathieu Dublanchy, project manager at Alcimed.