This blog was written by Sean Smith and originally published as a contributor article in Agronomist & Arable Farmer’s December Magazine. Click here to view.
Across the world, agriculture is facing mounting pressure to become more sustainable. Consumers increasingly demand produce that has a limited impact on the environment and is safer for them to eat. Consequently, the last few years have seen unprecedented demand for organic products. UK consumers spend almost £45 million a week on organic products and the industry is on target to reach £2.5 billion by the end of 2020.
In order to match demand, the UK Government has taken steps to encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. The Environmental Land Management Scheme, which will replace the Common Agricultural Policy by 2024, sets out a three-tiered system, with the first tier encouraging farmers to adopt environmentally sustainable processes, thereby pushing organic farming practices up the agenda.
The European Union is also cementing its position as a global leader in organic farming; ambitious targets have been set for the region. The Action Plan for Organic Farming in the European Green Deal aims to increase organic farming area to make up 25% of all agricultural land, allocating €40 million to support this growth. Furthermore, the EU “Farm to Fork” initiative aims to reduce the use of chemical and more hazardous pesticides by 50% by 2030.
However, at present organic farming remains a fraction of European agricultural output. For many farmers, it is difficult to justify converting to organic methods as the manpower, additional resources and associated costs required are significant. The truth is that organic farming does not just mean turning off chemical sprayers but involves converting the land to organic, which takes several years, and learning how to manage soil nutrients without inorganic fertilisers. Combatting disease and pests without synthetic chemical products can be a long and arduous journey. The rewards at the end are not always guaranteed.
Under the Soil Association’s organic standards, there are only a limited number of approved, naturally derived biopesticides which can be used only as a last resort and under very restricted conditions. Instead, farmers are urged to create a natural balance in soil environments and maintain healthy wildlife populations to help control pests.
The difficulty with depending solely on wildlife is that it is unreliable and less effective compared to conventional chemistry, causing lower yields and uncertainty for farmers and buyers. The EU Common Agricultural Policy is centred on three things; environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. If organic farming is to continue its growth and become a larger part of agricultural output, farmers need greater access to cost-effective, naturally derived crop protection products to guarantee quality and viable yields.
Luckily, there are some commercially available biopesticides that are suitable for organic farming. Biopesticides are based on naturally occurring substances. One such approach to biopesticide product development involves the use of plant-derived chemistry which has evolved over millennia, so efficient degradation pathways typically exist in nature. Many of the active ingredients in biopesticides tend to have diverse and multi-site modes of action so the development of resistance by the target plant pathogens or pests is minimised. More importantly, the use of biopesticides does not result in synthetic chemical residues in crops, resulting in safer produce for the end consumer which can meet organic standards.
Access to biopesticide products would give organic farmers the ability to protect their crops in a way which is comparable to conventional chemistry but aligned with the fundamental elements of organic production. For example, Eden Research’s biofungicide product Mevalone® which protects against botrytis (grey mould) has organic approval in Italy and Spain for use on organic vineyards.
Spain and Italy harvest more than 100,000 hectares of organic grapes and their authorities have set ambitious targets to boost growth. Spain is forecasting an increase in organic wine production of 70% between 2018-2023 as it looks to compete with Italy, which is currently the largest producer of organic wine.
Already available on the market in both countries, Mevalone provides Spanish and Italian organic vineyards with a sustainable solution to botrytis that offers efficacy similar to conventional chemistry and a three-day pre-harvest interval.
While other nations including the UK maintain a more conservative approach to allowing the use of biopesticides in organic farming, players in the biopesticide market are aware that they need to continue working to prove that naturally derived products can meet organic standards and are safe and effective to use, resulting in higher quality and more cost-effective produce for the end consumer.
However, the situation could be further improved by regulators who need to acknowledge that biopesticides can play a significant role in supporting the growth of organic farming by providing farmers with more rapid and wider access to proven products. Ultimately, switching to organic practices can come at a cost to farmers due to potentially lower yields and the greater use of resources. These costs are transferred to consumers which is why many view organic products as a luxury which ultimately limits demand.
The growth of organic farming has huge potential to boost sustainability in the wider agricultural sector but if it is to step into the mainstream, farmers need more tools to grow produce in a cost-effective manner. Biopesticides can facilitate this and support sustainable agricultural targets without compromising the fundamental principles of organic farming.
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