“As Europe reduces its dependence on agrochemicals in agriculture over the next 10 years and beyond, a crucial question arises: what will replace them? Agricultural biotechnology can tell you the answer, ”writes Farhan Mitha in an article published by Labiotech Insider.
The use of agrochemicals - pesticides, fertilizers and plant growth stimulants - has been crucial for humanity over the past century. They allowed to increase agricultural production in accordance with the needs of the population (whose number grew sharply) and saved billions of people from hunger. Nevertheless, the environmental impact of agrochemicals has become too noticeable to be ignored, and chemicals are increasingly viewed as tools of the last century that are poorly suited to solve the problems of the 21st century.
Recognizing this, the EU has recently set a number of goals to drastically reduce the amount of chemicals used on European farms by 2030. We are talking about a 50% reduction in the use of chemical and hazardous pesticides, as well as a 20% reduction in the use of fertilizers.
Moreover, it is obvious that the movement towards these goals should not be accompanied by a sharp drop in productivity. A way out of the situation would be to turn to innovative agricultural biotechnologies.
Historically, the promotion of agricultural biotechnology in the EU has not always gone smoothly. The European Commission has hindered the introduction of genetically modified crops, which has disappointed many research companies across the continent who have considered genetic engineering methods as essential tools in developing a more productive, more reliable and more sustainable agricultural system.
However, agricultural biotechnology is not only the creation of GM crops: scientists use them to create a number of biological solutions that contribute to improving methods of growing crops (without genetic modification of the plants themselves).
Pheromones for pest control
Chemical insecticides are tough tools designed to control insect pests, it is "heavy artillery", which is used for mass murder. But this "scorched earth" method, used for decades, causes serious environmental problems.
BioPhero, a Danish technical university, pioneered the use of insect pheromones as a sustainable alternative to chemical insecticides. The company's products are specifically aimed at combating plant moth, many of which are dangerous pests for crops.
Pheromone interference confuses moth males by masking the true location of the female in a plume of bait signals. As a result, fewer eggs are laid, and the number of larvae that can damage the crop is kept at a lower, much more manageable level.
BioPhero has developed a fermentation process - comparable to the beer production process - where engineering yeast creates moth pheromones. This allows the manufacture of pheromones on an industrial scale, which makes this method of sustainable crop protection economically feasible.
As you know, pests and pathogenic microorganisms come in all shapes and sizes, and are representatives of different kingdoms: animals (insects), fungi, bacteria. This poses a huge challenge for the development of biocontrol approaches that are both highly targeted and adaptable for a number of different organisms.
Biotalys (formerly Agrosavfe), a division of the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology, suggests that the solution to this problem lies in one of nature’s most universal biomolecules: proteins.
The Belgian biotechnology company, founded in 2013, is developing “agrobels” - small proteins designed to combat specific pests and pathogens. The source of inspiration for the creation of "agrobel" was the llama proteins, which are distinguished by remarkable natural qualities.
The company can quickly select the most effective biologically active proteins against each specific type of pest or pathogen, produce them in sufficient quantities through microbial fermentation and turn them into user-friendly plant protection products.
Use of soil bacteria
In recent years, the field of microbiome research has expanded dramatically, facilitated by significant advances in the study of the effects of resident microbial communities on the host organism. This topic was also the focus of agricultural research, because plants also have microbiomes.
Perhaps the most well-known agrobiotechnical company working to create a network of symbiotic relations between plants and bacteria is California-based Pivot Bio. The company's flagship product introduces genetically modified bacteria into the soil, which can capture nitrogen from the air and deliver it directly to plants. The product reduces or even replaces the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, the application of which the EU aims to reduce by 20%.
Several European biotechnology companies (including Xtrem Biotech in Spain and ApheaBio in Belgium) are also exploring the possibility of using microbes as a substitute for agrochemicals. However, the successful introduction of beneficial microbes into the soil in real field conditions has proved to be a daunting task, as environmental factors often impede their effectiveness and stability.
To overcome this limitation, the French company Kapsera has developed tiny biodegradable microcapsules of alginate (material derived from algae) that can improve the delivery and performance of bio-fertilizers and biopesticides.
The challenge facing European farmers in the light of the new goals of the EU is extremely difficult: to continue to increase productivity while reducing the use of chemicals. It may seem unattainable, but an increasing array of biological solutions proves that this is not so. And given the fact that the EU agricultural biotechnology industry in 2019 received 245 million euros for development (21% more than in 2018), the new agricultural revolution may be closer than we think.