Fighting agricultural pests, the natural way

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When it comes to controlling farming pests, chemical warfare has dominated since the mid-20th century. But the use of chemical pesticides is increasingly restricted by concerns about their environmental and health effects. In 2013, for example, the EU introduced a ban on pesticides containing neonics, which it extended last year. Now, biological control unleashing predators and parasites against plant pests is becoming more popular.

It’s a complex field with many different approaches. These include introducing into a crop a pest’s natural enemies which are being grown elsewhere or encouraging the growth of predatory species that already exist in the local environment. The most important markets for biological control are in horticulture, fruit and vegetable growing, where high-value crops are concentrated in relatively small areas under glass or in outdoor orchards and fields.

Companies can make money by selling seeds of plants that support beneficial insects or equipment to monitor pest numbers, but there’s a bigger business opportunity in growing and selling the insects themselves. Canadian firm Applied Bionomics, for example, sells 13 predatory species. Other companies include Koppert of the Netherlands and Beneficial Insectary of the US.

But the biological control industry is still very small compared with the huge agrochemical industry, which includes giants such as Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, and Corteva. One advantage of chemicals is that they’re relatively precise and controllable. Biological controls, on the other hand, depend on complex interactions between local and added predators, and they can be less predictable, particularly in open fields.

But along with the increasing regulation of pesticides, a key driver for the market will be the rising demand for organic farming in Europe. And in terms of revenue, over the next five years, the biological pest control market is predicted to almost double in size.

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