Biocontrol in horticulture gains momentum …

Chrysoperla carnea’s larvae are active predators and feed on aphids and other small insects. (Photo credit: Koppert.)

… but the EU’s lengthy authorisation process hampers future growth

Gill Noriss, for FCI magazine, sat down with Jennifer Lewis, executive director of the Brussels-based International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association (IBMA). She highlights why it is crucial to set a positive target for biocontrol and speed up and simplify the process to ring novel biocontrol products to the EU market quickly and safely. The future success of biocontrol in horticulture depends on fundamental investment in research and developments by governments and trade bodies committed to a reduced reliance on chemical control. At the same time, education is paramount.

The International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association, with over 250 members globally, represents the Biocontrol technologies industry. Founded 27 years ago, it is recognised as the experienced voice of biocontrol. Based in Brussels, it supports, via proportionate regulation, green-innovative and effective technologies for sustainable agriculture, allowing farmers to grow healthy, productive, and profitable crops. Executive Director Jennifer Lewis emphasised the essential role of biocontrol in Integrated Pest Management and, in turn, in sustainable regenerative agriculture. IBMA has Observer status in FAO and OECD to advise on biocontrol-related matters and works with members and other stakeholders to advance biocontrol and the implementation of IPM worldwide.

Prior to her appointment as Executive Director of IBMA in 2019, Jennifer worked in crop protection for 35 years in various marketing, regulatory and stewardship roles in the USA, Brazil, and Europe.

Jennifer Lewis is the executive director of the Brussels International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association (IMBA).

FloraCulture International: Sector representatives are calling for a proper definition of biological control. How does IBMA describe biocontrol?

Jennifer Lewis: “The IBMA has a definition, as follows: ‘Biocontrol technologies originate from nature – directly or identical to nature if synthesised. They are used to manage pests, weeds, and diseases in agriculture, home, garden, and forestry. Our biocontrol solutions achieve the sustainability goals that consumers urgently demand for food safety, human health, and protection of the environment.”

Why is a clear definition of biocontrol so important to the industry?

“A legal definition is essential to give the technology identity that can be referred to in other legislation and cross-policy instruments such as incentives and innovation funding. In this way, we can enable this group of technology and ensure its rapid availability to farmers. We fully support the aims of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD, Directive 128/2009/EC) to reduce pesticide use through Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Biocontrol technologies provide effective and innovative plant protection for modern agriculture and food and ornamentals production, so their use in IPM programmes is a vitally important component of the industry’s response to government and consumer demands for safer, more environmentally friendly production.

We also welcome the proposed, stronger, revised regulation, the Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) and would like to see it implemented as soon as possible.

The definition currently proposed in the SUR provides for IBMA’s four types of biocontrol that must be natural or nature identical. To have a definition in primary legislation gives biocontrol technologies a legal standing, which is great progress.”

What are the benefits of using biocontrols?

“In a nutshell, biocontrols generally minimise the unintended consequences of pesticide use, minimise harm to humans and the environment and do not result in residues. They are nature-based solutions working with ecosystem services to enhance biodiversity and soil health. Biocontrols tend to be target-specific, respecting the non-target fauna and flora, and will be an important part of the move to more sustainable farming.”

What type of grower is using biocontrols?

“Biocontrols are widely used across speciality crops, including ornamentals, orchards, vines, vegetables (protected and outdoor) and increasingly in arable crops.

“Ornamentals and protected vegetable growers have long been using biocontrols, particularly in protected greenhouse crops, where the restricted and controlled environment made the use of beneficial insects an obvious early choice in the development of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Additional biocontrol options now allow for outdoor crop use to a much greater extent, and, for example, in the flower business in

Kenya, biocontrols are well supported and widely used in response to the demands and preferences of global customers for residue-free products.

There are also reports of existing biocontrol working well in arable crops in some countries. They may not always work in the same way or at the same level as in speciality or protected crops. It is important to note that a more holistic approach is required rather than simply replacing a chemical spray with biocontrol. It is not just about the product or the application technique but also what else is being done on the farm to make a difference, such as adapted rotations, different timings, mechanical controls or wildflower refuges. In many situations, big data will allow the farmer to look at the whole farm picture, decide on rotations, varieties or timings, and work with nature to plan his pest and disease control and increase biodiversity.

A good example is the successful use of pheromones to control Rice stem borer on 16,000 hectares of rice production in the paella heartland of Valencia, Spain. The regional government, manufacturers, advisers, and farmers worked together to make this happen, and the area has been transformed to become a Site of Special Scientific Interest where no insecticides are used, rice yields are protected, and biodiversity has increased.

In Brazil, over 23 M ha is under biocontrol, and technology developments and uptake have been extremely rapid here. Farmers are using big data to ensure the correct timing of the application of beneficial insects, microbials and plant extracts. In both Brazil and increasingly in Europe, lightweight drones are used to deliver beneficial insect eggs to protect maize against corn borer. In Europe, around 450,000 ha of maize are protected in this way. Many constraints can be removed with big data and novel technologies.

This is not yet happening at scale in European arable crops, in my view, largely due to a lack of incentives to try it and insufficient biocontrol products currently available to growers in arable crops.”

Impatiens thrips (Echinothrips americanus) is an increasing problem in greenhouse cultivation, having spread to many countries within the last 30 years. (Photo credit: Koppert.)

In 2019, the global biocontrol market was forecast to be worth US$6.2 billion by 2024. What are the latest updated figures, and how is this market evolving by continent?

“Globally, the market of biocontrol is now around six billion Euros, and Europe represents around 25 per cent of that. The fastest growth is seen in Brazil, followed by the USA. The main influence on the variability of market development between countries reflects back to the individual legislation applied, the time it takes to gain registrations and how it works. Most countries average two to three years from submission to authorisation, but requirements and approaches can vary substantially.

“For example, the United States is probably the best in that it has a dedicated lane for registration and does not demand efficacy data upfront. This data can be submitted once the product is in the market, which makes label extensions to other crops easier and quicker. In Brazil, a product is registered on the pest(s) it controls rather than by crop, hugely speeding up authorisations. There is much support for biocontrol in Africa, including in the flower business, where traders certainly prefer no-residue products. The FAO works hard on friendly legislation on biocontrol there, especially to help smaller farmers. Kenya, for example, has well-developed biocontrol and can expect product authorisation in one to three years, whereas in South Africa, it may take three to five years. By contrast, the authorisation process in Europe can take up to ten years.”

What are the major obstacles for biocontrol manufacturers to enter the EU market?

“We are often told that there are too few biocontrol products available. In fact, many companies have products in the pipeline and continue to develop new ones, but current European policy does not support them. Products have been developed but have been held up in the EU authorisation process, which is long and complex and can take up to 10 years from submission to authorisation. This is partly due to insufficient people resources to make the evaluations. Biocontrol plant protection products are regulated according to EC Reg 1107/2009 guidance, which is the same as chemical pesticides.

The Mode of Action (MoA) of biological products is different to chemistry, often regulating pests and diseases rather than directly controlling them. A lack of understanding of biocontrol modes of action can lead to many irrelevant questions in the review process, delaying authorisation further. Data requirements for microbials were updated in November 2022. This is a good improvement as the new requirements are based on the biology and ecology of the organisms and are conditional according to their biology. Data requirements for semiochemicals are now under discussion, and further work is needed to adapt these and the requirements for natural substances. Ultimately, as we move towards 2030 and most Plant Protection Products are biological, a separate legislative framework for biocontrol is needed.

A recent survey of our members reported potential new substances and uses representing 28 million hectares of crops using biocontrol in Europe. This represents 129 substances across multiple uses and crops.”

What feedback do manufacturers get from growers?

“Biocontrols have a different MoA from the chemical products many growers are used to, so the farmers often need to learn how to get the best results in their field and situation. This can take time, and there is, therefore, a need for more expert advice to help them. Advisers often have limited experience with biocontrols, so widespread training on how best to integrate biocontrol and IPM into the wider farming system remains a priority. As a result, depending on the farmer’s attitude and funds available to move to a more environmentally friendly approach, developments can be relatively slow. In the EU, this raises the question of the structure of the Common Agricultural Policy and whether the current eco-schemes are sufficiently encouraging for growers to make the necessary changes.”

Whom do you see providing the expert advice required?

“To move away from chemical dependency, we need the manufacturers of the new technologies who have developed the products to transfer their experience and knowledge: they know them best, so biocontrol advice must necessarily come from them.

In Europe, the SUR is pushing for more IPM training to get more advice on an integrated approach to farms. This will be a major education task and will likely require further funding. A combination of the manufacturers to provide the product knowledge and experience; researchers to measure the effect of biocontrols on biodiversity (currently not measured); advisers in the field; farmer networks to run on-farm trials; and produce and grain buyers to be responsible for quality requirements would be ideal. By working in this way, in multi-stakeholder groups, knowledge could be shared to help resolve problems and find solutions in real-time in the field.”

Biocontrol technologies originate from nature – directly or identical to nature if synthesised.

Are biocontrols more expensive and more difficult to use?

“Innovation is always expensive. Whether it is a chemical or a biocontrol, a new product will likely be more expensive than an old one. However, surveys with growers who use biocontrols identify the availability of biocontrols and the need for more products as a greater problem than the cost. Biocontrol is not generally more expensive, but in cases where it is, there are usually savings to be made elsewhere, for example, on labour or perhaps the flow of the operation. In some instances, when switching to biocontrols, extra applications are needed, or more products must be used because biocontrols are generally more specific than a broad-spectrum chemical. It is also worth noting that the crop may command a premium for being produced more environmentally friendly, which may counteract the extra cost, e.g. under the Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE) scheme in France.

Training is certainly needed to help growers switch to biocontrols. In many cases, advisers have a limited understanding of biocontrol, so getting correct advice for using and applying the necessary programmes is important. Biocontrol can contribute to a more holistic approach on the farm.”

The EU has adopted a hazard-based approach to chemical crop protection since 2011, differentiating itself from the rest of the globe, where legislation is based on risk assessments. Can this lead to an unlevel playing field and ultimately price EU producers out of the global market?

“The main issue with the European regulatory system is the five to ten years it takes to obtain an authorisation compared to two to three years in the rest of the world. This means investors and biocontrol manufacturers are de-prioritising Europe, so European farmers have less access to biocontrol than producers in other key producing regions such as the USA or Brazil. This could ultimately lead to EU producers being unable to produce crops as effectively as producers in other markets unless the authorisation process is speeded up in Europe.”

The Annual Biocontrol Industry Meeting (ABIM) takes place between 23-25 October 2023 in Basel, Switzerland. This image depicts the conference room from the 2018 ABIM conference in Montréal.

Whilst there are legally binding descriptors and regulations about what constitutes an ‘organic’ production unit, there are currently no equivalent regulations about what a grower must do to ‘label’ their produce as ‘IPM’ produce. What is your view on that?

“The IBMA is asking for biocontrol standards on produce, but at present, different countries and different retailers have their own environmental assurance schemes. Retailers tend to put their own slant on it but are generally looking to understand more about biocontrol and its benefits.

LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) is an example of a wider scheme. This global assurance system recognises more sustainably farmed agriculture, floriculture, horticulture, and livestock products. Farms in 27 countries worldwide are producing the LEAF Marque Standard, which embraces the principles of Integrated Farm Management and is increasingly being adopted by UK supermarkets. France’s national scheme, the Haute Valeur Environnementale, provides an environmental standard that includes biocontrol and affords growers a premium for their produce, grown environmentally friendly.”

What will be the impact of the EU’s Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) on the sector?

“The SUR is essential for biocontrol. The SUR proposal contains a definition of biocontrol and amendments to allow accelerated authorisations for biocontrol. These are key to having more biocontrol available to farmers by 2030 to replace some of the currently withdrawn pesticides. Support for the SUR is very divided as the legislation is being communicated as a pesticide reduction tool. In fact, pesticide authorisation is subject to a different legal framework, and the SUR is an instrument for the effective implementation of IPM and the availability of alternatives like biocontrol. Without the SUR, there will not be alternatives. It is, therefore, very important to support the SUR through the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to ensure it is adopted within this Parliament. Failure to adopt the SUR will severely limit the availability of biocontrol and, in turn, its adoption and the move to sustainable and regenerative agriculture across Europe. We should note that in a recent McKinsey report, switching to biologicals was seen as the second most effective measure that can be taken on farms to decarbonise agriculture, indicating the importance of biocontrol in climate mitigation and the achievement of the European Green Deal goal of net zero by 2050.”

Four types of biocontrol solutions

Biocontrol solutions are divided into four categories covering four different types of technology:
• Natural substances – consisting of one or more components that originate from nature, including but not limited to plants, algae/microalgae, animals, minerals, bacteria, fungi, peptides, protozoans, viruses, viroids and mycoplasmas.
• Macrobials – invertebrate biocontrol agents, natural enemies such as insect, mite and nematode species providing control of pest populations through predation or parasitism.
• Microbial – based on microorganisms, including but not limited to bacteria, fungi, protozoans, viruses, viroids, and mycoplasmas, and may include entire microorganisms, living and dead cells, any associated microbial metabolites, fermentation materials and cell fragments.
• Semiochemicals – substances emitted by plants, animals and other organisms used for intra-species and/or inter-species communication and having a target-specific and non-toxic mode of action.

This article was first published in the September 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.



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