Bioprotectants (erroneously known as biopesticides) have enormous potential to be the fastest growing industry in plant health and pest control sectors. The global community is eagerly waiting for the delivery of novel bioprotectants. Industry is ready, expecting global leaders, policy makers and regulators to put their act together and enable them to develop and deliver novel products to humanity for safeguarding the at-risk resources from biological threats.
During the last century, we had developed a high degree of reliance on chemical pesticides for pest and disease management. Because of many unacceptable environmental safety and human health concerns associated with these products, the pesticides-based global pest and disease management system is not tenable. There are examples of serious adverse impacts of pesticides on human health and on the environment. In a region in South Asia where pesticides were indiscriminately used, cancer incidence in the farming community is so high that hundreds of patients travel regularly by train to a cancer hospital approximately 300 km away. The train is dubbed as the ‘cancer train’ unfortunately.
I often dream that humanity has released a global tender seeking quotations for safeguarding food and agriculture, and other plant and animal resources on this planet, from pest and disease threats. The rationale for this tender is that food that can feed over two billion people is being lost due to pests and diseases, and the overall economic damage caused by them amounts to trillions of dollars. The key caveat of this tender, however, is that the safeguarding products, tools, and processes should not have adverse impacts on the environment as well as on the ability of future generations to use the natural resources that are available to present generations.
I also dream that scientists, entrepreneurs, policy makers and regulators have responded to the tender and provided evidence that ‘biologicals’ fit that niche well. In our enthusiasm, we have even started calling these biologicals ‘biopesticides’, making humanity wonder as to why we label beneficial biologicals such as a fungus, a virus, or a nematode as a type of ‘pesticides’? Let us rectify this mistake and henceforth resolve to call them ‘bioprotectants’, as the World BioProtection Forum, a non-profit organisation, has advocated.
It appears to surprise many people that, already, 500+ businesses have come forward in producing these bioprotectants around the world. Unfortunately, game changing bioprotectant products that have consistently comparable, if not better, efficiency and effectiveness of the chemical pesticides have not been delivered. Lack of long-term vision, strategic direction, global initiatives, funds, and enthusiasm are all among the key reasons for the lower impressions of bioprotectants’ efficacies.
Two decades of the 21st century have already passed, and we have made sub-optimal progress in replacing the 20th century’s chemicals-based plant pest management system with a biologicals-based systems. Numerous pesticides have been banned from use due to their toxicity, but rather than being replaced by bioprotectants that could fill those “gaps in the market”, farmers across the world find themselves with no tools to fight pests and diseases. This raises the question of why more bioprotectants are not available. The answer relates, at least in part, to the fact that in many parts of the world new bioprotectants are still being evaluated and regulated using the systems and protocols developed for chemicals. The consequence of this one-size-fits-all approach is that there is little tangible progress made worldwide in delivering novel bioprotectants, as trying to meet the requirements of regulatory systems that do not fit the products in question present an insurmountable hurdle. New approaches and systems are needed to be developed for changing the basic operating system for safeguarding the food and agriculture and plants and animals in the natural environment from pest threats.
We have also failed to accelerate the identification and characterisation of microbial diversity in order to discover the game changing microbes that can be potentially used as bioprotectants. The global microbial diversity is a vast source of promising populations and strains and we have so far been able to identify only about 1% of the global microbial biodiversity. We have not yet adequately progressed the development of a global microbial gene bank and resource centres for preserving, culturing, maintaining, studying, and distributing the material and associated information to scientific institutions and industry worldwide. We do not even have adequate protocols needed to accelerate and enhance the smooth exchange of microbial resources across nations. It will require streamlining of laws, regulations, standards, and practices across the national boundaries to enable easy access to resources, and products developed from these resources. A European network, Common Access to Biological Resources and Information (CABRI), appears to be a potentially good model to expand and develop global systems.
Global reform is needed to develop framework and system for bioprotectants to enable their registration, distribution, and sale across nations. At present, the regulatory frameworks of different nations are inconsistent and not much progress has been made to streamline them. A reform in the regulatory thinking and processes will help to achieve system compatibility across regions and nations and facilitate innovation, market access and trade. In a fast-changing technology driven world where the scales of technologies and business change rapidly, regulators need help to develop and enforce regulations and properly monitor compliance. Novel approaches, tools and partnerships are needed to regulate the new technologies including the evaluation and delivery of bioprotectants.
Partnership of policy makers and regulators with industry and academia will be crucial to achieve regulatory frameworks and systems that are outcome-focused, fit for purpose, reduce the time and cost for businesses, and promotes innovation and growth. Regulators may have to deviate from the ‘business as usual’ regulatory processes and focus more on providing clear and comprehensive guidelines for developing and registering new bioprotectants. Regulators should also be ready to acknowledge the best practice industry standards and protocols, which may be assessed as equivalent in meeting the regulatory purpose. The skill set, mindset and attitude required for the modern regulatory role is to facilitate and help in making it happen. This would require new working models to engage and synergistically collaborate with academia and industry to access knowledge and expertise needed to effectively regulate and facilitate innovation for the development of the bioprotection sector.
The development of new bioprotectant based pest management system requires financial investment and commitment from political leaders juggling competing priorities. However, they should be mindful that we have a broken pest and disease management system and, if a new system is not developed, we will suffer trillions of dollars of economic losses on an ongoing basis. There is urgency to put our act together and deliver outcomes to safeguard humanity and this planet. Incidentally, a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has revealed that the global arms spending steadily increased over the past 20 years to US $1.9 trillion in 2019. The global community expects that politicians worldwide who readily endorse funds for the procurement of arms and ammunitions would pay equal attention to the funding needs of the institutions and initiatives that are critical for safeguarding the food and agriculture, natural biodiversity, and humanity from the real threats to their survival. The development of bioprotectants based pest management system needs immediate attention of the global leaders. This is a high priority, which we cannot afford to neglect.
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