The Third International Congress of Biological Control (ICBC3) held recently in San José, Costa Rica, saw world experts in safer-to-use and more sustainable biological control products gather to share their very latest knowledge and research.

The congress raised the question of what can be done to improve the uptake of biological control products to fight crop pests and diseases which threaten the food security of the earth’s 8 billion people expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050.

This is in context of the global biocontrol market valued at USD $6 billion in 2022 compared to the worldwide agrochemical market (including pesticides and fertilizers) being worth USD $252.6 billion.

Pedro Rocha, Biotechnology and Biosafety Coordinator at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), was part of a panel – moderated by Dr Ulrich Kuhlmann, CABI’s Executive Director, Global Operations – offering a multi-stakeholder perspective on the challenge exacerbated by pressures including climate change.

In this Q&A, Mr Rocha offers insight into how the uptake of biological control products – as part of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans – can be increased for a more sustainable agricultural production system to help feed our growing and hungry planet.

Question: Please briefly explain what your organization/institution is doing and how it is involved in the implementation of sustainable agriculture? If relevant, explain how you are involved in creating awareness of the use of biological control products in (specific) value chains, and/or how you are involved in dealing with issues around pesticide residues, MRL levels, etc?

Answer: IICA understands sustainable agriculture to be that which, in the long term, contributes to improving environmental quality, satisfies basic human food and fiber needs, is economically viable and improves the quality of life of the producer and society through science-based agricultural practices that are respectful of the soil, air and water, and respect the rights and health of farmers.

As IICA, we participate in the implementation of sustainable agriculture through institutional support, capacity building and the development of communication exercises, which we do through the Institute’s various technical programs.

Under the current administration, these include the Agricultural Climate Action and Sustainability Program, the Innovation and Bioeconomy Program, the Territorial Development and Family Farming Program, The International Trade and Reginal Integration Program, the Gender Equality and Youth Program, the Digitalization Agrifood Systems Program and the Agricultural Health, Safety and Agrifood Quality Program (AHSAQ).

IICA also has the Secretariat of the Inter-American Commission for Organic Agriculture (ICOA), and recently has established the ‘Bioinputs Hemispheric Platform.’

Here, some specific examples of how we act. Within the bioeconomy program, we have a bioinputs unit, which focuses on promoting the institutional framework (policies, regulations and networks) for the development of the subsector in the countries.

Within this same program, there is another unit on biotechnology and biosafety, which seeks to support countries that so require, with the generation of regulatory frameworks that allow the use of Living Modified Organisms or products obtained through gene editing for various purposes such as the control of pests, diseases and weeds.

In the AHSAQ program, we have collaborated with the articulation of countries for the review of maximum residue levels. We also support and promote the participation of IICA’s 34 member countries in the Codex Alimentarius.

In all these cases, we work with the institutional framework of the countries to generate policies and regulatory frameworks related to the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, the strengthening of extension programs and the consolidation of bioproduct registration systems. We also support countries in presenting their positions on critical issues such as MRL.

Question: How important is it for growers to increase their use of biological control products as part of a move towards greater sustainable agriculture and accessing high value markets?

Answer: The use of biological control products is important to farmers under at least three perspectives: environmental, human health and economic.

From the environmental point of view, biological control products have the potential to contribute to reducing the load of various agrochemicals in the environment. In turn, by reducing the use of chemical synthesis products, a positive impact is generated on the human health of the people involved in the activity.

However, let us keep one thing in mind, a poorly handled biological product can be more risky and even dangerous or harmful than a chemical product handled according to technical protocols.

Question: What are the main barriers to more growers – particularly smallholder growers – adopting more biological control products? In other words, what kind of pre-conditions must be met that growers are using biological control products?

Applying beneficial entomopathogenic nematodes against fall armyworm (Photo: S. Toepfer).

Answer: Although it is not an obstacle, we must recognize that heterogeneity is a key factor to take into consideration. Heterogeneity in terms of products, producers, countries, users, and consumers, among others.

For the small producer, the main obstacles could be related to the lack of knowledge, that could be overcome by implementing capacity building actions.

Also, the absence of extension and transfer programs, related to the previous point, and a big limitation is that it requires investment. Finally, the poor communication and the quackery (‘charlatanism’).

There are many examples of efficient bioproducts and their advantages. In contrast, there are some examples of quackery or charlatanism. For instance, from time-to-time problems arise and in desperation the producers resort to anything and that is where some swindlers propose the use of certain mixtures that, in the best case, at some point may have worked on a small scale but when it is required to produce them and use them on a larger scale, they have resounding failures.

The big problem is that if a not-proven product that arrived at commercialization without being validated generates a negative result will negatively affect the entire bioinputs subsector, just one bad experience will negatively affect many others good experiences. Clearly, when communication is not clear acceptance could be compromised.

Technically, the variability in the quality of the product generated affects the effectiveness (which responds to the dynamics inherent to the behavior of living beings). There is also confusion between subsistence and commercial production. It must be recognized that there is subsistence or self-consumption production, small and medium scale production and industrial scale production.

It is not possible to expect that overnight a subsistence producer who develops a bio input can offer such a product to a commercial-scale producer without going through a scaling-up process to guarantee the quality of the product.

The absence of regulatory frameworks is one the main obstacle for the bioinputs subsector to develop at different scales. It is common that when a product is to be commercialized and enters the registration circuit, the same technical evaluation and registration criteria are applied to bioproducts as are applied to chemical synthesis products, thus hindering decision-making and approvals.

Personally, I do not consider that policy harmonization between countries will be feasible, what I consider likely is to have harmonized criteria for the evaluation of products and processes.

Question: What more can your organization/institution do to increase the uptake of biological control products? Who else is important to drive the uptake of the products on the ground?

Answer: Continuing with regulatory support: Work from the regulatory point of view in the countries that require it, including reviewing and proposing adjustments to current regulations.

Also, promote the interaction of the competent national authorities in different countries, promote coordination among actors, for which purpose the ‘Bioinputs Hemispheric Platform’ has been established, incorporating researchers, universities, producer associations, regulators and marketers.

Finally, continuing with the capacity building activities including training regulators in aspects related to the evaluation of biological control and strengthening communication activities.

Additional information

Main image:  The panel offered a multistakeholder perspective on the challenge of improving the uptake of biological control products exacerbated by pressures including climate change.

Relevant story and blog

‘Third International Congress of Biological Control calls for greater collaboration on national and international policy.’

‘Reducing pesticide risks and using nature-based solutions can address biodiversity loss – here’s how.’

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