Biopesticides key to future proofing Australian agriculture

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By Tim Grogan, CEO, Bio-Gene Technology Limited

Australian agricultural products are among the highest quality in the world. The strong demand for our products has seen our farming industry experience a 67% increase in value over the past three decades. As 70% of all food grown in Australia is exported, the importance of international trade in sustaining our agricultural sector is clear. As such, it’s worth paying attention to two macro trends set to impact how we manage sustainability in agricultural production and maintain our lucrative export markets over coming years.

The first trend is the battle to control pests like insects with an ever-diminishing pool of effective pesticides and the impact this will have on both agricultural production and our export markets. This is a risk we must manage and will require the close attention of producers. The second trend is evolving consumer sentiment towards products that are cleaner and greener, including organic produce. This creates an opportunity to differentiate and add value to Australia’s agricultural exports.

Across both trends, I believe biopesticides will play an increasingly important role.

Lesser grain borer (Rhyzopertha dominica) 

Growing insecticide resistance

Pesticides are critical to farming. In Australia, commercial farming accounts for 75% of the 8000 pesticides used across industry – the remaining 25% is used in household products.  Without access to a broad range of effective and affordable pesticides, farmers stand to lose much of their annual production to pests and diseases – up to 78% of fruit, 54% of vegetables and 32% of cereals currently produced for consumption would not exist.

Aggregated across the six major Australian grain crops, the estimated present annual loss due to invertebrate pests totals $359.8 million. Infestations in stored grain are just as devastating – the lesser grain borer can eat through 56% of stored wheat over a two-month period if left to its own devices.

These losses will only increase as resistance to insecticides grows and there are less solutions available for farmers. Globally, the agricultural industry is at a precipice – we cannot manage our fields or grain if we cannot effectively and safely control resistant pests.

Yet, current chemistry is no longer proving effective to control pests, and not nearly enough has been invested by big agrochemical companies over past decades to develop new solutions to stay ahead of the resistance threat. As a result of growing consumer concerns regarding ‘safe’ products, global agrochemical companies with depleted product pipelines are now looking to smaller agricultural technology companies like Bio-Gene for new product options to meet these challenges. Resistance can be reduced by offering farmers access to a range of (bio)insecticides that work through different mode of actions on the insects.

One of Bio-Gene’s pipeline products, Flavocide, has confirmed ability to provide residual control for all five major grain storage pests, including resistant strains, when used in combination with chlorpyrifos-methly and deltamethin. We are on the path to commercialising Flavocide, a nature-identical compound with a new mode of action, as part of a new generation of bioinsecticides that control pests and overcome resistance with far less impact on human health and the environment.

The impact of agricultural pesticide bans

Over the past few years, the EU, UK, Canada and America (among other jurisdictions) have banned a number of pesticides, such as chloropyrifos and neonicotinoids among many others, due to environmental and human health concerns. While these pesticides are still allowed for use in Australia, overseas bans could mean Australian farmers will not be able to export produce or grain treated with such pesticides to countries where these pesticides are banned.

One example is Australian canola growers who have needed to stop using omethoate to control red-legged earth mites if they wish to continue selling into the lucrative European market. Omethoate is banned in Europe.

It’s not just environmentalists and health officials who advocate for the use of safer pesticides in agriculture. Consumers are also calling for fruit and vegetables to be grown more naturally with less use of synthetic pesticides. And the market is responding. Aldi became the first big retailer in Europe to refuse to buy from growers that used eight toxic pesticides, including three neonicotinoids, even before these pesticides were banned by the EU regulatory authorities. Ahead of the curve, Aldi also plans to expand its organic food brand. Others are following.

As Australia seeks to expand its global agriculture exports, failure to wind back the use of pesticides banned in other jurisdictions will ultimately hurt our farmers.

The global shift towards biopesticides

Biopesticides, (including bio-insecticides) can come from plants, microbes, or other organic sources. They have a lower environmental impact compared to traditional synthetic pesticides, reduced risk to non-target organisms, minimal residue levels on crops, and are highly compatible with integrated pest management practices. Biopesticide solutions are effective in small quantities and decompose rapidly, leaving no harmful residues in crops or the environment. They also generally have shorter pre-harvest intervals, allowing for safer and more flexible applications.

The increasing market trend towards biopesticides reflects the global shift towards more sustainable agriculture. Valued at $3.7 billion in 2019 and expected to reach $7.7 billion by 2025, the biopesticide market is experiencing exponential growth, particularly for high-value fruit and vegetables crops.

Moreover, the regulatory framework for biopesticides in the US, Brazil and Australia enables biopesticides to enter the market faster than synthetic pesticides, as they benefit from fewer studies required,  a shorter evaluation time and reduced registration fees.

The rise and rise of organics, Australia on top

Enabled by biopesticides, organic farming is on the rise. By the end of 2022, 96.4 million hectares of farming land around the world was cultivated organically, an increase of 26.6% over the previous year. Remarkably,

About Bio-Gene Technology Ltd

Bio-Gene Technology (ASX:BGT) is developing new insecticides derived from nature to achieve high impact globally. Its unique technology is based on compounds with a novel mode of action proven to overcome insecticide resistance with minimal impact on human health and the environment.

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