The age of agrochemicals is ending: It’s time for agricultural biotechnology
Actualizado: 22 sept 2020
The use of agrochemicals has 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 are 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 help to solve this situation. Historically, agri-biotech has had a difficult relationship with EU regulators, one example being genetically modified crops. 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.
Among these instruments of biotechnology stand out three of them:
The pheromones for pest control protecting crops by confusing insects and preventing them from mating, rather than killing them. Moreover, pheromone-based crop protection is species-specific, leaving the biodiversity intact. This approach also has the added advantage that because it is not lethal, it is less likely to drive the emergence of resistance — a major problem with conventional insecticides.
The biocontrol proteins, small proteins designed to target specific pests and pathogens. These proteins are inspired by the remarkable natural qualities of llama antibodies (llamas and other members of the Camelidae family, as well as sharks, have a specific immune system with much simpler antibodies than human ones). The end results are agrobody proteins that tackle the target pests or pathogens, have no impact on the soil or other species (including humans) and are biodegradable, breaking down over time into simple amino acids that the plants can use as a nutrient source.
Several European biotechs are investigating the use of plant-boosting microbes as replacements for agrochemicals. 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. The encapsulation technology, tiny biodegradable microcapsules made of alginate, will address the major performance bottleneck of biological fertilizers, paving the way for their mass adoption in agriculture.