“As Europe moves to reduce its reliance on agrochemicals in the farming system over the next 10 years and beyond, a crucial question emerges: what replaces them? Agricultural biotechnology could provide the answer,” writes Farhan Mitha in this insightful article published by Labiotech Insider.
Potato News Today publish an excerpt from Mitha’s article here – the full article can be read on the Labiotech website.
The use of agrochemicals — pesticides, fertilizers, and plant growth enhancers — has been crucial to humanity over the last century. They’ve allowed agricultural productivity to keep up with the most drastic period of population growth in our history, and have saved billions from starvation. Yet, their impact on the environment has become too profound to ignore, and they’re increasingly seen as 20th-century instruments that are ill-suited for 21st-century challenges.
Recognizing this shift, the EU has recently laid out a series of targets to dramatically reduce the amounts of chemicals used in European farms by 2030. These include reducing by 50% the use of chemical and hazardous pesticides as well as reducing fertilizer use by 20%.
Achieving these goals without experiencing a massive drop in yields will be no mean feat. Turning to innovative agricultural biotechnology could solve this conundrum, and make the transition away from agrochemicals far less painful.
Historically, agri-biotech has had a difficult relationship with EU regulators. The European Commission’s long-standing resistance towards the adoption of genetically modified crops has frustrated many researchers and companies across the continent who view such strains as critical tools in the development of a more productive, more robust, and more sustainable agricultural system.
However, agricultural biotechnology extends much further than just GM crops: scientists have applied biotechnology to create a range of biological solutions for improving the way we grow crops, without contravening existing regulations around genetic modification of the crops themselves.
Pheromones for pest control
Chemical insecticides are blunt instruments, designed to control insect pests by simply killing them en masse. This scorched-earth approach, when used over decades, causes serious environmental problems.
BioPhero, a spinout from the Technical University of Denmark, is pioneering the use of insect pheromones as a sustainable alternative to chemical insecticides. The company specifically targets moths, which are a significant pest in a variety of crops.
BioPhero’s pheromone intervention confuses the male moths by masking the female’s true location in a plume of decoy signals. With fewer moths now getting laid (and by extension, their eggs), the number of crop-munching larvae is kept to a lower, much more manageable level.
To overcome the affordability obstacle, BioPhero has developed a fermentation process – similar to beer brewing – where engineered yeast produce moth pheromones. This enables the cheap, industrial-scale production of the pheromones, making this method of sustainable crop protection economically viable for less expensive but more widely grown ‘row crops’.
Crop pests and pathogens come in all shapes and sizes, and from multiple kingdoms of life; not just animals such as insects, but fungi and bacteria too. This poses an enormous challenge for the development of biocontrol approaches that are both highly-targeted and also adaptable for a range of different organisms.
Biotalys (formerly Agrosavfe), a spin-off from the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology, proposes that the solution to this challenge lies in one of nature’s most versatile biomolecules: proteins.
The Belgian biotech, founded in 2013, is developing ‘agrobodies’ — small proteins designed to target specific pests and pathogens. These proteins are inspired by the remarkable natural qualities of llama antibodies.
The company can rapidly screen and select the most effective bioactive proteins against each target pest or pathogen species, produce them at scale through microbial fermentation, and formulate them into user-friendly crop protection products.
Recruiting soil bacteria
The field of microbiome research has exploded in recent years, catalyzed by major advances in our ability to characterize the nature and impacts of resident microbial communities on their host organism. It’s a topic that regularly hits the headlines in relation to human gut bacteria, which biotechs are racing to harness for therapeutic intervention, but it has also become a focal point in agricultural research. Plants, after all, have a microbiome too.
Perhaps the most prominent agri-biotech company working to exploit the web of symbiotic relationships between plants and bacteria is California-based Pivot Bio. The company’s flagship product, PROVEN, introduces genetically engineered bacteria into the soil that can fix nitrogen from the air and provide it directly to crops.
Already in its second year on the US market, PROVEN reduces or even replaces the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, the use of which the EU aims to reduce by 20%.
Several European biotechs are investigating the use of plant-boosting microbes as replacements for agrochemicals, including Xtrem Biotech in Spain and ApheaBio in Belgium. Successfully introducing helpful microbes into the soil in real-life field conditions has proven tricky, however, as environmental factors often impede their effectiveness and stability.
To overcome this limitation, French biotech Kapsera has developed tiny biodegradable microcapsules made of alginate (a material derived from algae) that can enhance the delivery and performance of biofertilizers and biopesticides.
The challenge faced by European farmers in light of the new EU targets is extremely difficult: to keep improving productivity while reducing the use of chemical aids. These two goals may seem incompatible, but the emerging array of biological solutions are proving that sustainability and productivity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And with the EU agricultural biotechnology industry raising €245 million in 2019 — a 21% year-on-year increase — a new agricultural revolution may be closer than we think.