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Let’s unlock the potential of biopesticides

The Farm to Fork Strategy aims to accelerate Europe’s shift to more sustainable food production and consumption. We are playing our part by using nature as our starting point to develop new crop protection products such as biopesticides.

By Olivier de Matos
Director General, CropLife Europe

CropLife Europe member companies committed to investing €4bn into innovation in biopesticides by 2030. We are nearly halfway there with 41% of our total investment and remain convinced that we will be able to reach our goal.

But financial investment alone is not enough. Farmers will also need an enabling regulatory environment, as well as incentives, to complement their toolbox and fully deploy these innovative crop protection solutions across the EU.

What are biopesticides? And why are they important?

Biopesticides are a type of pesticide made from natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain minerals.

Examples include semiochemicals – such as pheromones. You might have heard of pheromones already – but most probably it was in a very different context. Here, pheromones are a unique way of approaching insect control. They work by disrupting the pest’s ability to mate, limiting the number of offspring which in turn limits the possibility of crops being destroyed. They are a very targeted method with a very low probability of insect resistance development. They are innovative and very simple.

Another example is micro-organisms like bacteria or viruses. Microbes for instance have been used in our food for thousands of years — from bread to cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, and even the preparation of chocolate. In agriculture, they can be used as an alternative to conventional pesticides.

Biopesticides have many potential advantages: they are often less toxic to non-target organisms and the environment; they break down more quickly in the environment, reducing the potential for residues; and they can also target more precisely specific pests, weeds or diseases, reducing the need for larger-spectrum pesticides.

Whilst it is very encouraging, we have also identified some challenges. Sometimes a farmer would require several different biopesticides instead of one chemical solution to manage all the pests and diseases attacking a field over a growing season. Furthermore, there is only a limited range of biopesticides available for use on different crops and in different regions. Their efficacy is also generally lower when the disease pressure is high, so another product may be needed to fight off the disease. Today, they are almost never a like-for-like substitute for a chemical pesticide.

So what’s the solution? We need to stop looking at it as if it’s a zero-sum game. It’s not about conventional pesticides vs biopesticides. It’s about farmers having access to a variety of solutions. It’s about making informed choices on the best course of action which will depend on many external factors including weather, crop variety, region, and levels of pest or disease pressure. I believe that Integrated Pest Management strategies offer many answers to today’s challenges.

It’s all about Integrated Pest Management

Farmers can harness the power of biopesticides by:

  • incorporating them into their crop management strategies;
  • using them in combination with other options when intervention thresholds have been reached; and
  • applying them at the appropriate time and in the correct manner and monitoring the results to ensure their effectiveness.

When used as a component of Integrated Pest Management programmes, applying biopesticides helps to deliver economically viable crop yields while reducing the overall use of chemical pesticides.

In addition, farmers can use other sustainable practices such as crop rotation and intercropping to reduce the need for pesticides generally.

What is still needed to unlock the future potential of biopesticides?

While there is no question that biopesticides offer promising alternatives to conventional pesticides, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution – their effectiveness always depends on the specific pest or weed and the crop in question.

That said, they are playing an increasing role in agriculture. In 2020, the global biopesticides market was worth €3.5bn, and it is forecast to rise to €17.1bn by 2031. In contrast, the global pesticides market in 2031 is forecast to be €175bn.

First, the crop protection sector needs the EU institutions to ensure the regulatory framework to bring innovative biopesticides into the European marketplace.

We commend the dedicated pathways set by the European Commission for certain technologies like semiochemicals and microorganisms. But new technologies such as peptides or fermentation products are still lacking a clear regulatory process. These innovations are not reaching the EU market while being available in other regions. Applicants are uncertain about how to secure registration in Europe and EU farmers suffer a competitive disadvantage compared to farmers operating in other regions.

We would welcome a dedicated discussion with Member States, the European Commission, EFSA and other relevant actors to identify regulatory adaptations that unlock the potential of these solutions for European farmers. We are ready.

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