What is the state of the biocontrol industry? What are the biggest challenges and early successes we can point to? These are just some of the questions we asked our guest, Jennifer Lewis, the Executive Director of IBMA (International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association), a central voice for the international biocontrol industry with a strong focus in Europe. Jennifer has 35 years in marketing, regulatory, and stewardship roles in the US, Brazil, and Europe. She works daily with IBMA members and other stakeholders to advance biocontrol and integrated pest management (IPM) worldwide.
To start with, how did you get into the industry and why?
Jennifer, whose budding interest in the field started in university, said, “I’ve always been very interested in IPM.” Following graduation, she joined the pesticide industry, and later found an opportunity to work at a biocontrol company managing beneficial insects. She realized that IPM is not just about “mix and matching alternative and conventional technologies” but rather “looking at it as a structured hierarchy that depends on what one is trying to achieve in ecosystem management.”
Have you been surprised by how the industry has grown over the past few years?
“Not at all, because I think there is a real understanding and wish by many growers to move to a more resilient and sustainable system. The environment is important to many growers. The challenge is how to do it, because they don’t have the necessary advice, products or because of economics. Farmers say to me, “We can’t go green if we are in the red.””
“But what I see is that once someone starts to use bioprotection, they use it more and more. Using bioprotection can take some getting used to, maybe you have to adapt some part of the operation, maybe the field has to be sown or managed earlier than it was previously, landscape factors around the field, it might depend on rotation. All those agronomic factors become increasingly important.”
Jennifer points out that young farmers in particular recognise the importance of using nature-based solutions to ensure a resilient farm. But for other groups, “I think there is a challenge generationally”, where older generations may be more reluctant to change while younger ones are more open to it. “This poses a challenge in European farming, where the demographic is towards the older end of the spectrum. The move towards more biology-based inputs will be field by field, farm by farm, region by region.”
What are some of the biggest challenges we face in shifting towards bioprotection?
“I think there are three key things.”
“The first is the authorisation process. The quicker you can authorise a product, the faster growth you will get because companies get a quicker and therefore bigger return on investment.” Jennifer explains that the authorisation process in Europe is very slow compared with other countries. “Brazil, for example, has shown huge advancements in bioprotection largely thanks to their faster authorisation process.”
“The second point is having enough advice and examples of best practice there for people to work with, to use, to gain confidence with. And that only comes with enough products on the market. Then you have to train people how to use them.” In the case of Brazil, it also helps that “farmers are willing to try something new, that’s the mindset.” This is aided by the increasing number of young advisors graduating from university and entering the biocontrol industry.
“The third point is the pull” says Jennifer, referring to the social pressure from the public to support sustainable farming. “The pull should be possible through this growing awareness from consumers that the environment is important. We can farm in ways that are productive and also work with nature.”
Is there a way we can make it easier for growers to adopt these methods?
“One that is really excellent is the [CABI] BioProtection Portal, which gives farmers and advisers a go-to place where they can see, what have I got? What else is there? I think that’s extremely valuable, especially for advisors.” As a busy farmer, the overall goal might be to have a resilient farm, but ultimately it is up to advisors to devise a strategy that incorporates biologicals while maintaining profitability. “I think providing that information, and especially the fact that it is easy access, is very important. Even for people lobbying on behalf of farmers, or people looking to write policy – they can see what is available in a few clicks.”
How can biocontrol help reduce the impact of climate change?
“There are two ways to answer this. First, switching to biologicals can reduce GHG emissions”, she says. Referencing this report from McKinsey & Company released in June 2023 that investigates the actions farmers can take to mitigate climate change. In their analysis, “the second most important one on-farm was using biologicals”.
“Second, bioprotection works with nature to maintain biodiversity.” Using biological products to maintain ecosystem balance builds resilience into the system, so that changes in weather can be better tolerated by crops.
At IBMA, how involved are you in changing policy to push bioprotection?
“At the moment, we are quite involved at the EU level. We are also active in the UK […] as there is an opportunity post-Brexit to make changes.” Jennifer discusses the Sustainable Use of Pesticides, a new piece of legislation that will provide a European-wide definition of biocontrol. She also explores the possibility for a fast-track approval process for biocontrol products.
“For us, what’s key is bringing in biocontrol, speeding it up and making legislation and systems appropriate for it. That has to be the driver. And I would like to see some of the legislation rebranded as that, because everyone can manage positive change, but managing negative change is much harder.”
The legislation is a concern for farmers because they aren’t sure we have enough alternatives on the market. “There is some circular thinking here”, Jennifer points out, since the passing of this legislation with a biocontrol definition creates the means to increase availability of biocontrol.
Any last words?
“I think it’s a very exciting time in agriculture. We are seeing a coming together of many different technologies. There is a real moment to bring some synergy and change to the way pests and diseases are managed in agriculture today.