For a pest control technique that is currently enjoying strong growth, biological control of pests has a long history. In fact, as far back as the late 1800s it proved a success when citrus growers in California, USA, introduced a predatory insect, the vedalia beetle, and a parasitoid fly from Australia to control Icerya purchasi, the cottony cushion scale, that was devastating their crops.
Similarly, the IOBC (International Organisation for Biological and Integrated Control of Noxious Animals and Plants) was first formed in 1952.
Currently, the use of biologicals is growing at around 15% per year, and to ensure that healthy situation is maintained, and maybe improved still further, ENDURE representatives will be meeting with the European Commission in September to discuss the place of biologicals in the ‘pesticides package’ regulations.
A key member of that ENDURE team will be Bernard Blum, head of international affairs at ENDURE partner IBMA (International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association) and a member of the Acadèmie d’Agriculture de France (French Society of Agriculture). Bernard (pictured above) will be part of a team meeting representatives from the Commission’s departments of agriculture, health, environment and enterprise and research, and ahead of the event we spoke to him to find out more.
QUESTION: How can biological controls contribute to IPM (integrated pest management) strategies? Can you provide some concrete examples?
BERNARD BLUM: In technical terms, IPM is the coordinated use of pest and environmental information with available pest control methods to prevent unacceptable levels of pest damage by the most economical means and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment. The IPM approach can be applied to both agricultural and non-agricultural settings, such as the home, garden and woodland recreation areas and so forth, and takes advantage of all appropriate pest management options including, but not limited to, the judicious use of pesticides.
In the past, farmers were used to using together and according to their needs, all kinds of available techniques. However, the discovery of synthetic chemical pesticides - very cheap and effective against pests, diseases and weeds - let us think that they would, alone, solve all the protection problems. In reality their excessive use led to heavy environmental and health problems, and the development of resistance etc, making it necessary to return to more sensible combined protection concepts.
In the meantime, research has been actively working on alternative biological systems. The new biological solutions proved to be extremely selective, usually environmentally friendly and safer for the users and the public. In reality, biological controls, contrary to chemical pesticides, are not so much targeting the destruction of the pests but rather aimed at guarding the health of the crops and the quality of the production.
Biological control is using the mode of action of four classes of ‘products’: micro-organisms (viruses, bacteria or fungi), macro-organisms (benefical insects and nematodes), semiochemicals (insect pheromones and bioactive molecules) and natural extracts (botanicals etc) They can be introduced in cropping areas in order to protect the plant or, in conservation biocontrol, in order to enable the existing beneficial population to protect naturally the crops.
In the concept of IPM, each product, including chemicals, is used according to economical thresholds, at a given time, related to its mode of action, its risks and benefits. Due to their ecological and health benefits, biologicals are the methods of choice for IPM.
In order to provide the expected result, they need nevertheless to be used at the right time and under strict conditions. For example, entomopathogen nematodes are extremely effective against soil pests. But they need to be introduced at the exact time when the target insects come close to the surface in soil that is wet enough (irrigated) in order to ensure their mobility.
In IPM, biologicals do not exclude the use of chemical pesticides. The chemical pesticides need to be selective enough in order to not endanger the biologicals, or used in such conditions that they are not acting against them. Such a concept is well illustrated with the use of insect pheromones. These products can be used either in order to confuse the males, making it impossible for them to mate, or attracting them in traps. The use of insect pheromones is totally compatible with the use of fungicides, herbicides, even all kinds of insecticides and acaricides.
Another example is the use of antagonist bacteria, such as Bacillus subtilis which will colonise the entry sites of Erwinia, the bacteria responsible for fireblight in pomefruits (apples and pears). In that case it is, naturally, inadvisable to use any fungicides, but herbicides or insecticides can be used without problem.
QUESTION: What does the pesticides package mean for the use of biocontrols?
BERNARD BLUM: Due to the benefits I have just described, non-chemical plant protection measures and particularly biologicals are especially promoted in both the new Regulation for the placing of pesticides on the market and the Framework Directive for the sustainable use of pesticides. The EU Commission as well as the Parliament intend to promote the use of biologicals, which are the easiest way of reducing the use of chemical pesticides and therefore the risks attached to plant protection.
In order to promote the use of biologicals, it is foreseen that funding will be required for specific research, information and training will need to be developed, and subsidies may even be provided to farmers starting to use biologicals. The French plan, ECOPHYTO 2018, has a target of reducing pesticide use by 50% by the year 2018, and says alternative biological systems should be actively promoted.
Due to these policies and regulations, the use of biological controls is growing at the rate of 15% per year, not so much in organic farming but for IPM programmes. It is anticipated that 25-30% of the crops in Europe will adopt the use of biologicals in IPM by 2030.
QUESTION: How could the legislation be changed to encourage the use of biocontrols?
BERNARD BLUM: Despite what I have said, the regulations remain a major handicap for the development of biologicals due to the fact that these regulations have been developed with chemical pesticides in mind. They are therefore unnecessarily complicated, costly and time consuming.
During the five years from 2004 until 2008, the European Union funded an important project, REBECA, in order to provide scientific bases for new regulations adapted to biologicals. Unfortunately the project came too late in order to be taken in consideration within the pesticides package which was due to be adopted by the EU parliament at the end of 2008.
ENDURE therefore took up the challenge to come up with adapted regulations. The first step has been to summarise the gaps, problems and opportunities resulting from the pesticides package and enter into a dialogue in order to suggest adaptations. Due to the nature of biologicals (mainly living organisms) and their mode of action, it is very important to have very specific regulations adapted to each class of biological.
The safety studies should specifically better address the real risk of the considered agent and the concept of efficacy adapted to purpose of using biologicals. For example, it looks nonsensical to evaluate the number of insects killed by using insect pheromones which are not intended to kill any. Essentially, the evaluation of the registration dossier must be made by biocontrol experts rather than by toxicologists, as is done for chemical pesticides. Additionally, it is the case that biocontrol is and will remain extremely specific. Biologicals will never be applied to large, voluminous markets. Therefore the costs of registration should not be detrimental to their commercial development.
Finally, since we are looking at a situation where biological controls need to be developed and promoted within a very short period of time, the registration process should be reduced to a strict minimum.