The use of toxic pesticides in agriculture has poisoned our soil, our water, and our air, impacting our own health and that of our planet. Biopesticides (Bioprotection products) provide a clean, green, effective, safe and sustainable alternative, as they harness natural enemies to control crop pests and diseases. These products are non-toxic to users and consumers, and their natural selectivity for target pests ensures that they are harmless to pollinators and other beneficial insects. They decompose naturally, returning nutrients to our starving soils, and when used correctly they can be at least as effective as chemical alternatives, but with the benefit of being kinder to the environment.
Demand for biopesticides has increased in recent years, especially as a growing number of chemical pesticides have been removed from the market due to their toxicity. However, the regulatory process for biopesticides is slow (frequently taking 5 years or more), and many companies are hoping for reform to the UK regulatory system now that we have the freedom to do so post-Brexit.
Indeed, the UK Government – and more specifically Lord Frost, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, has just announced that a new unit is being set-up to shed EU regulations. In this political climate, the case for regulatory reform is likely to receive a highly sympathetic and fair hearing – particularly ones governing a sector that makes for a greener environment, given the importance of the green agenda as a pillar in the Government’s industrial strategy.
This article outlines some of the arguments for reforming the regulatory process for new bioprotection products in the UK (and ultimately across the European Union, EU). These arguments form the basis for the World BioProtection Forum’s (WBF’s) new campaign for change.
A gap in the market
The past decade has seen an increasing number of chemicals withdrawn from the market due to concerns over human safety and the environment. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), more than 225 pesticides are currently banned in the UK and in the EU. On 25 May 2020, the EU agreed to commit to a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2030, due to their harmful impact on soil health, the ecosystem and wildlife.
However, as these pesticides are steadily banned from use, horticulturists, farmers, growers, foresters, turf managers and – really – anyone currently depending on pesticides to control harmful organisms and ensure adequate yields, are frequently left with no alternatives. As one example, since the banning of the pesticide Chlorpyrifos in 2016, leatherjacket and chafer grub populations (two serious turf pests that cause widespread devastation every year) have significantly increased year by year.
Earlier this year, the UK government had to back-track on its promise to maintain a ban on a bee-harming pesticide. Journalists in the public media complained bitterly about this move, but it can’t be denied that working farmers were relieved when the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and British Sugar were successful in lobbying to sanction the emergency use of a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam on sugar beet seeds because of the threat posed by a virus.
The problem with banning toxic pesticides is that, too often, there seems to be no alternative to replace them. Yet many non-toxic, natural alternatives have been developed. They just haven’t been approved for use in the UK or the EU, and so they are not available on the market. As of the end of 2020, there were over 200 biopesticides available in the US market, compared to the EU market of 60. As demand for organic food production in the EU is high, and an increasing number of EU growers are keen to use biopesticides, it is broadly believed that the limited number of registered biopesticides in the EU market is related to the complexity of EU-based pesticide regulations (rather than lack of demand). This complexity can and must change.
A vision for a successful regulatory framework
In order to obtain approval of an active substance at the EU level, an applicant must follow procedures that are not dissimilar to those for chemical pesticides (albeit slightly adapted for biological products rather than chemicals). This includes the preparation of a detailed dossier, based on extensive tests and stringent data requirements, and its subsequent review and evaluation by the relevant member state and the EFSA (now by the HSE in the UK). The evaluation of a new product should take about 12–22 months but, in reality, it typically takes up to 5 years. At least one new biopesticide product is known to have taken 15 years to gain approval.
Such timelines and demands are not only crippling the BioTechs and SMEs that dominate the biopesticide industry – they are depriving end-users of much-needed products that are urgently needed to fill the gaps in the market created by banned chemicals.
The situation in the UK and the EU is particularly frustrating because many biological active substances (both bioderived chemicals and microbes) are well-documented, and significant parts of a dossier could comprise information from published literature, saving the time and expense of unnecessary tests. For example, it might be reasonable to waive data on residues, environmental fate, and ecotoxicology in some cases. For many biopesticides, formulation components are inert, or of no toxicological concern, so risk assessments could reasonably be based on the active substance alone. As another example, for groups of organisms with common properties, exchangeability of data could reduce registration time and facilitate the rapid introduction of biopesticides.
Furthermore, requests for regulatory reform in the UK and the EU cannot be considered unreasonable when the US regulatory system for biopesticides provides a ready model for simple emulation. The US regulatory framework for biopesticides is less complex than that used by the EU in many ways. For example, the US involves fewer authorities, and it allows for an exemption of registration in the case of minimum risk products. The US system also allows applicants to apply for a waiver based on published literature or by providing their own data. Thanks to these differences and others, registration of new biopesticides in the US typically takes about 1.6 years less than it does in the EU.
Streamlining the regulatory process for these products in the UK and the EU would enable the authorities’ own deadlines of 12–22 months to be met and would allow the green biopesticide industry to fill the growing gaps in the pest control market.
Time for change
Of course, we are not the first to highlight these issues. Anyone working in the biopesticide space will almost certainly have heard this all before. But bear with us – we truly believe that recent changes in global power, in particular Brexit and the UK Government’s commitment to life science technologies in its ‘Global Britain’ drive, combined with the fact that the clean, green agenda is central to the UK Government’s industrial strategy, mean that we are currently facing a new and unique opportunity to finally effect some real change, starting with the UK.
It genuinely seems that, for a brief moment in time, the UK Government’s attitude and objectives could be aligned with ours. The biopesticide industry stands poised to see how recent changes, such as those described above, might provide the opportunity to capitalize on our potential to finally bring about the true green revolution that our planet needs.
As such, the WBF is spear-heading a new campaign for regulatory reform for biopesticides in the UK. This year’s Biopesticide Summit (a free virtual event on 6th July, https://biopesticidesummit.com) is dedicated to this critically important theme. Our first-class speakers will present and debate the need for reform, their visions for a successful regulatory system, and how the WBF is working towards process reform in UK biopesticide regulation. The event is free to attend, and we would encourage everyone working in the biopesticide space – in the UK, the EU or beyond – to join us and see if we can make a real difference in the drive for a regulatory system that supports a greener, cleaner AgriTech industry.
We must capitalize on recent changes in global power to push for change. We will all benefit if we manage to create a regulatory environment that nurtures and supports the bioprotection industry. The WBF (organisers of the annual Biopesticide Summit) continue to stand for collaboration across all stakeholders in our industry, and we strongly believe that, if we stand together now, we can finally enact the regulatory changes we have been requesting for decades.
Now is the perfect time to effect change in the UK. Add your voice to ours, and join us on 6th July 2021 at our virtual Summit, to hear about our campaign, its progress, and to be a part of the future of Biopesticides.
Dr Minshad Ansari, Chairman of the WBF, email@example.com
About the World BioProtection Forum:
The World BioProtection Forum (WBF, https://www.worldbioprotectionforum.com/) is a non-profit organisation for encouraging collaboration across the biocontrol industry and academia. The WBF was founded to encourage the successful development and commercialisation of novel biological control products for agricultural pests and diseases. The Biopesticide Summit is the annual meeting of the WBF and its members.
About the Biopesticides Summit:
The Biopesticide Summit is the annual meeting of the WBF and its members. This year, the Biopesticide Summit will use a virtual platform, due to COVID restrictions still in place across much of the world. Attendance is free this year. For more information and to register your participation visit https://biopesticidesummit.com/