Alternatives To Traditional Pesticides

Scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have taken a “national team” approach to the development of biopesticides. A biopesticide is a biological agent, or micro-organism such as bacteria, used to control pesky insects, weeds and plant diseases in place of chemical pesticides.

More than 20 AAFC scientists from coast to coast are co-ordinating steps from discovery of microbes through research and development, to the commercial product. Most are now collaborating on the National Biopesticide study. These researchers work with environmentally friendly living organisms and/or their natural products to control important crop pests in agriculture and urban environments.

“The Canadian public is demanding safer foods and improved environmental health,” said Susan Boyetchko, one of two co-leaders of the study. “There are hidden costs to using certain chemical pesticides, both to human health and to the quality of our soil and water.”

The team has some promising biopesticide technologies that use naturally occurring fungi, bacteria and viruses. Coming down the pipeline is a product made of a soil fungus (Phoma macrostoma) to control dandelions and other broad-leaved weeds. Karen Bailey (Saskatoon) is working with The Scotts Company, which plans to register and commercialize this biopesticide for use on turf grass in urban centres.

James Traquair (London, Ont.) is working with the company AgraQuest Inc. in California to bring to market a bacterial agent to control leaf blight of blueberry and leaf curl of peach, diseases caused by a fungus. These efforts will result in registration of the product here through a harmonized process with Canadian and American regulators.

Several well-known products use Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria to control many moth and butterfly pests in agriculture, forestry and even for household use. Jean-Charles Cté (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.) has developed new formulations of Bt-based biopesticides to improve product strength.

Although still in the early stages, work is progressing on other projects. Scientists are developing a bacterium (Pseudomonas fluorescens) as a soil-applied bioherbicide for control of wild oats and green foxtail in the Canadian Prairies.

They are also testing baculoviruses against the cabbage looper, a chronic insect pest in commercial greenhouses. The data look promising. Baculoviruses can significantly reduce the damage to vegetable crops and the greenhouse industry will likely use this biopesticide in the future.

One of the challenges to getting biopesticides into the marketplace is development of technologies that are both economical and appropriate for mass production and formulation. “We are focusing on different platform technologies in these areas to make it easier for industry to partner with us,” said Antonet Svircev, the other co-leader of the National Biopesticide Study. “Shelf life can often be problematic for biopesticides, but our team is conducting sound science to extend the shelf life of these products well beyond one year.”

Another challenge is finding the right industry partner to register and commercialize new biopesticides. It may take 10 to 15 years from discovery until a product is commercially available. The companies that invest in biopesticides are mainly small-to medium-size enterprises. They often lack the resources and infrastructure to invest early on in the process. Creative solutions are needed to bridge funding gaps to the point where industry can partner earlier with AAFC scientists.

The demand for green products is growing rapidly. Canadians are evermore sensitive to damage being done to the environment. Many are looking to buy foods grown without synthetic pesticides. Organic farmers need new options to control crop pests, and biopesticides fit the bill.

“It takes a combination of science, art and entrepreneurship to develop biopesticides,” said Boyetchko. “They are the next generation of pesticides.”

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