Helping growers transition to biological control

Farmer engagement and knowledge transfer is central to the work of CHAP and our partners. We invest time and effort to work with growers and advisors to introduce innovations in agri-tech that will help them produce higher yields with increased sustainability. CHAP partner CABI is at the forefront of this work across the globe, as Dr Steve Edgington, head of CABI’s Biopesticides Team, explains.

Modern agriculture is heavily reliant on a range of chemical pesticides to which there is increasing pest resistance and issues of human and environmental harm; plus pressure from consumers and policymakers to change. It is clear that we need to support a global transition from a reliance on chemicals to cleaner, safer techniques, including biological controls. Farmers will not change the way they work just because the ‘experts’ think they should. They have been relying on agrochemicals to tackle pests and diseases for a long period of time, with great success and producing good yields, so persuading this change and also proving alternatives will work is not a quick or easy task.

Understanding the threat

However, there is good news. A recent study by CABI in Kenya, showed that farmers were not only aware of the need for change but were also open to take up cleaner alternatives to chemical pesticides. Ultimately, farmers and growers want to protect their lands, soils, crops, and the health of their families. As such, selecting the right control agent is crucial.

The impact of climate change is bringing farmers face-to-face with new pests and diseases. As a result of these new threats, growers may – in a desperate urge to save their crops – apply a mix of chemical control agents.

As global climates continue to shift, farmers, growers and advisors need to know about alternative crop protection products: it is neither feasible nor desirable for growers to resort to throwing large quantities of chemicals at pests and diseases as an emergency measure.

Paving the way for biologicals

There is a need for a transition from hard chemistry to biologicals and this can be done in incremental steps. CABI is committed to be part of this solution and to guide farmers and growers in making the transition to biologicals.

Many countries have biological alternatives, based on living and/or natural ingredients. However, there is a lack of awareness – in the UK and worldwide – on what is available on the market and how to correctly use them.

To help address these issues, we launched the BioProtectionPortal, a free information platform dedicated to biological control products – by this we mean biopesticides as well as invertebrate biocontrol agents. We’ve obtained permissions from the relevant plant protection regulator or authority for each country to show information on the registered biological products, plus getting it into a search engine so a user can search by country, crop or pest. The portal is becoming a wide-reaching resource for biologicals where growers can discover which biological products are suitable for their needs. In addition, we are adding news and information relating to the biocontrol industry and to the use of biologicals in cropping systems.

Making an informed choice

We hope all this information will help farmers decide what is the best alternative product for them. However, biologicals need extra care to become the central unit of crop protection on a farm. Some will not work if the sun is too bright, or moisture levels are not right, or the application is not done at a specific time of year. With certain biologicals you might get a 30% kill of your pest versus 90% from a chemical product. To increase that percentage, there are add-on activities, such as integrated pest management (IPM), that can be used to enable good protection of the crop.

But, and it’s a big but – farmers and growers need products that come at a similar cost to chemical control agents and, they need the confidence that the biological product will be effective.

Developing new biologicals

This is where science groups come in, to help support the development of new biologicals, investigate formulations and de-risk uptake. A good example is the collaborative project between CHAP and CABI in the Innovate UK funded Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle project. This work has been looking at above- and below-ground formulations that introduce a beetle-killing fungus to the crop.

Future perspectives

Globally, we’ve made a great progress so far with biologicals and it’s going to be a fascinating time in the next five years because of the policies for change that have come in. To increase uptake, governments will need to offer support to farmers and encourage the transition from hard chemistry to biologicals.

To read about the previous work done by CHAP partner CABI on this project, go to Biopesticide

Learn more about our Fungal Biopesticide Development Lab.

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Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.