Food systems are still seen as one of the drivers of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation in the EU. The Farm to Fork strategy, a cornerstone of “the European Green Deal”, aims for a “greener / more sustainable and healthier food” system. It proposes a comprehensive new approach delivering healthy, affordable and sustainable food, while protecting the environment and increasing biodiversity. The strategy is also an important part of the Commission’s agenda to achieve the United Nations’ sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to bring environmental, health and social benefits to all and particularly to ensure a sustainable livelihood to primary producers.
The Farm to Fork strategy plans to take actions to “reduce by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides” and “reduce by 50% the use of more hazardous pesticides” by 2030. The strategy also aims to achieve 25% of total farmland under organic production by 2030.
These are substantial targets that will raise enormous challenges for growers and create a major driving force for the industry to develop effective alternative solutions. The intention is to revise the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive and enhance the provision on Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM will encourage the use of alternative control techniques like mechanical weeding and crop rotations as well as the use of biological pesticides. Technology is advancing rapidly like the use of digital cameras and satellites for precision agriculture, which for example allows “automized / robotized” spot treatments of fungicides, insecticides and herbicides and mechanical weeding. So, we can expect further progress on the efficiency and efficacy of these techniques for broad-acre crops. If these methods can achieve some reduction in especially chemical pesticide usage, then the biological pesticides will start to become a more realistic alternative option to be embraced.
To date biological pesticides / biorationals are largely used in high value protected crops and the challenges of using biorationals successfully in outdoor crops should not be underestimated. A major change in application techniques will be needed to provide effective crop protection in open field crops. Biorational products need contact with their target to be effective: almost none of them are systemic. Therefore, one technical challenge on outdoor crops is to achieve accurately placed spot applications, including the underside of leaves if necessary. If we are successful with the technology, we may be able to make the products work in optimal conditions.
Another major point of attention is the fact that biorational products degrade more rapidly than conventional synthetic crop protection products so the protective effect does not last very long, with most of them effective for less than a week. So the impact of climate on disease or pest outbreaks in outdoor crops is certainly another key challenge. Under extreme pressure from weather, for example three weeks of rain, we could face a major impact on food production, because either the products cannot be applied or they do not work for that long. It is certainly a challenge to get spot-wise applications to work under all conditions. Certis Europe, among others, is working on characteristics such as improved rainfastness in their biorational products, so that they can be used more reliably in outdoor crops and perhaps by 2030 more effective Biorational solutions will be available.
A further challenge is to find products that will offer acceptable levels of performance. Considerable work is already underway to find new biological active ingredients and there is a lot of attention in this area. What is in the pipeline across the industry is unknown, but there are certainly some products that may potentially work in outdoor crops coming along, though generally they are not yet as effective as their chemical counterparts. Certis has a few solutions for aphids, which occur in many crops, but they are not always successful because biorationals lack the systemic component. Downy Mildew is another major problem for which it has been shown to be difficult to find a satisfactory solution. Cereals and potatoes are likely to be particularly challenging to find biological solutions, because of the intense cropping system and the limited flexibility in application technology.
However, we do already have some good, reliable products focusing on outdoor crops. Examples include biorational control of Downy Mildew and Botrytis on vines and work on bioinsecticides and biofungicides on potatoes is progressing well. However there seems to be limited potential to replace modern herbicides with bioherbicides at present. There may be a few in the pipeline, but at the end of the day, if automated control technology advances and systemic herbicides are still doing a good job at reasonable cost, it could be that biologicals will never play a major part in replacing them.
The regulatory situation is always a challenge for new products and, if new biological products are to be introduced to the market in time to have any chance of meeting the target to reduce chemical usage, the Commission’s intention to facilitate approvals of pesticides containing biological active substances and reduce the length of the pesticide authorisation process by Member States must be implemented as quickly as possible. Unless this happens in a reasonable timeframe, the goals set will prove to be unrealistic.
There is little doubt that Farm to Fork is a bold strategy, but it may be that the goals are achievable if everything comes together in the right way. If we find and develop new reliable and long enough lasting biorational products and technology improves, maybe they will play their part in reducing the chemical pesticide treated area by 2030, achieving the goal to move towards a more healthy and sustainable EU food system.
Jan Mostert, Head of Biorationals Innovation Team, Certis Europe