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Fight fire with fire: The new way of pest control

This article is part of the special report Innovation, GAP and the Green Deal: A complicated combination?

Biological pesticides are rapidly gaining importance as a sustainable and practicable environmentally friendly alternative to chemical pesticides. However, they are currently being hampered by inadequate regulation.

As concerns about the harmful effects of chemical pesticides grow, reducing the use of pesticides has now been placed high on the political agenda.

This is reflected both in the European Green Deal, which specifies an “increased level of ambition to significantly reduce the use and risks of chemical pesticides”, and in the new “farm to table” strategy (F2F).

There have been a number of chemical agents bans recently. While this is praised by activists and environmentalists, it reduces the number of tools available to farmers in the EU.

Copa-Cogeca, the Union of European Farmers and Agricultural Cooperatives, draws attention to this problem in its report on the strategic plan for cooperation. Since 2009, farmers in the EU have found themselves “increasingly obliged to use alternative, non-chemical pest control techniques despite the insufficient information, knowledge and products available to them”.

So while the goal of reducing pesticides is clear, it remains less clear how this is to be achieved and what the future of crop protection will look like.

Bio-pesticides would be a form of living organism-based control that includes microbial pesticides based on bacteria or fungi as the active ingredient. These living organisms are inherently pathogenic to or compete with pests.

Biocontrol technologies are becoming an increasingly important addition to the range of tools used by farmers, helping them to ensure the future sustainability of the crop sector.

According to IBMA, an association that represents the manufacturers of bio-control products, microbial bio-control products are a growing sales market in the EU, which currently represents a European market volume of around two billion euros on a market of 3.6 billion euros.

Geraldine Kutas, Director General of the European Plant Protection Association (ECPA) told EURACTIV that there is no question that farmers need "effective and safe solutions to control pests and diseases". There is also little doubt that using nature as a starting point offers “more opportunities to develop products with low-risk toxicological profiles, low residue levels and even faster degradation”.

Although there are various incentives in Europe to promote the commercialization and use of biopesticides, there is no specific regulation for products based on microorganisms or biochemical extracts, which means that they generally have to follow the same regulatory path as Chemicals.

Study: Legal barriers make it difficult to use biopesticides

The development of biological pesticides is being hampered by deficiencies in the current European control system for pesticides, according to a British study. This sees biopesticides as a middle ground between conventional and organic agriculture.

Anika Gatt Seretny, senior communications manager at ECPA, agrees and told EURACTIV that almost 40 percent of all new active ingredients that have been brought onto the market since Regulation 1107 came into force were biopesticides, but that “the poor implementation of the 1107 deadlines clearly hampered the development of biopesticides ”.

She added that the average time for a biopesticide to be approved in the EU is four years, compared to two years in the US.

A recent 2018 report on Agrow biopesticides found that in the US, where there are specific regulatory definitions and pathways for biopesticides, registration is significantly faster and cheaper than in Europe, with microbial pesticide products averaging 1.6 years be brought to market earlier than in Europe.

Isabelle Babrzyński, IBMA communications and operations manager, told EURACTIV that these bio-control solutions “protect the crops and environment of today and especially tomorrow and are the first choice for sustainable pest and disease control”.

“In Europe, microbes are an important part of the bio-control toolkit for farmers,” she said, adding that the European Commission “is currently reviewing data requirements for microorganisms with member states to adapt them to better match the biological profile of microbial products correspond".

Babrzyński also stated that “Member States are considering how to harmonize their approach to microbes and labeling, as well as possible mitigation measures, in order to maximize market access for these products while ensuring safety for users and consumers”.

Pekka Pesonen, the general secretary of the COPA-COGECA agricultural and cooperative organization, stated that "the availability of appropriate tools, including mechanical, chemical or, in this specific case, biological control technologies, is a key element for the proper implementation of integrated pest management".

He added that this type of innovation is essential, especially when you consider that "farmers and their cooperatives in the EU today face a variety of challenges, including new pests and diseases".

In an interview with EURACTIV, Andreas Huber, the leading researcher in the field for the agricultural company Corteva in Europe, stated that "the demand for biological pesticides in Europe has increased massively". Corteva therefore wants to "expand its capacities worldwide, but above all in Europe".

"Some of these biologicals are quite potent and, when combined with other control methods, show very promising efficacy and very promising value for farmers."

There is "a huge incentive for farmers" to use organic pesticides as they help reduce residues on crops and many of the substances are compatible with organic farming.

Regarding the increasing number of pesticides that have recently been banned, “often there is almost nothing left [for the farmer] because we used to use pesticides like organophosphates. Now they are all gone, so there is nothing left to fight certain diseases ”.

Either way, microbial biopesticides will play an increasingly important role in agriculture in meeting the challenges of climate change, he added.

"There are many examples that show that the warmer climate brings new pests to Europe that need to be combated," says Huber.

In addition, the combination of organic pesticides with conventional pesticides and new digital technologies could be an important part of the tools that farmers can use to cope with these new challenges.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Britta Weppner]