How pheromone innovations contribute to sustainable crop protection
Oct. 5, 2021
Pheromones are chemicals produced as messengers that affect the behavior of insects or other animals, and thus can be utilized for pest management. The most widely used pheromones are sex pheromones as insect’s sexual attractors. These products keep the pest population numbers low in a sustainable way.
New technologies have been developed to make pheromones more affordable, effective, and easier to be applied, leading to their wider adoption and greater contribution to sustainable crop protection.
AgroPages interviewed experts from Certis Europe, BASF, BioPhero, Pherobank and Trifolio-M GmbH. They introduced their pheromone innovations, and shared the views on pheromone advantages and markets. They also gave us advices for farmers’ highest ROI.
Could you please introduce your company? What are your target markets?
Certis Europe: Certis Europe is a leading company in the provision of Biorationals, registered plant protection products generally derived from the natural environment. They offer improved benefits for plants, people and the planet, which are increasingly important factors for Integrated Crop Production to satisfy requirements of the value chain and consumers.
Certis has, for many years, focused on using science-based research to expand its portfolio and to deliver technically sound, sustainable and economically viable solutions that support growers and bring benefits for consumers. Its wide portfolio includes micro-organisms, natural substances and pheromones and all products are officially registered under the crop protection guidelines, which means that the quality and safety of all these products is guaranteed and performance has been proven by scientific research and development trials. Certis is present in France, Italy and Spain, the major markets for pheromones, with its range of pheromone products using the Cidetrak technology.
BASF: At BASF Agricultural Solutions, we aim to further strengthen our market position as an integrated provider of seeds, crop protection and digital solutions. Our connected offer comprises fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and biological solutions, as well as seeds and seed treatment products, complemented by digital products to help farmers achieve better yield.
Our innovation-driven strategy for agriculture focuses on four selected crop combinations, known as crop systems: 1. soy, corn (maize) and cotton in the Americas; 2. wheat, canola (oilseed rape) and sunflowers in North America and Europe; 3. rice in Asia; and 4. fruit and vegetables globally. We actively steer our connected offer for farmers and the agricultural industry toward sustainable solutions by integrating sustainability criteria into all business and portfolio decisions.
Within the Agricultural Solutions segment, we remain committed to active investment in pioneering R&D for new insecticides that simplify farmers’ operations and address the toughest pest threats and production needs. Taking a balanced approach against a complex societal, regulatory, environmental and business background, we are deepening our diversified insecticide portfolio.
As a leader in the pheromone market, we have decades of experience, supporting farmers across the globe with this technology. To date, our focus in this market is on specialty crops like fruit trees or grapes in Europe and South America. Given BASF’s R&D capabilities, we want to expand our portfolio over the coming years to continue to help farmers address growing pest challenges on their farms.
BioPhero: BioPhero is a Danish biotechnology start-up dedicated to making affordable and safe insecticide replacements for field crops. Our mission is to lead the transition towards sustainable agriculture, where safe pheromone-based products are the primary method for pest control.
We use a whole new technology based on yeast fermentation to produce pheromones for mating disruption that for the first time can be used in field crops. Insects attract each other with pheromones, but if we release the same pheromone in a field, the insects can’t find each other to mate – no mating means no eggs and no plant-munching larvae.
We target pest moths such as cotton bollworm, rice stemborers, fall armyworm and diamondback moths – some of the world’s worst pests in some of the world’s most significant field crops, including maize, rice, soybean, cotton, etc. Since these are global pests, we target a variety of countries. By producing the pheromones biologically, we believe that we can greatly expand the existing pheromone market.
Our customers are pheromone formulation companies, which will incorporate our pheromones into sprayable formulations for onward sale to farmers. In the field, the pheromones will be slowly released from the formula to disrupt the mating of the targeted pests. In the end, application will be governed by regulations and farmer preferences.
BioPhero was founded in 2016 as a spin-out from the Technical University of Denmark, and has attracted investments from DCVC Bio, Novo Seeds and Syngenta Group Ventures as well as project grants from the EU.
Pherobank: Pheromone research in the Netherlands began in the early 1970s. In those early days, Pherobank was integrated into the Dutch research institute IPO-DLO, which later became part of Plant Research International. In collaboration with the Dutch organization TNO, Pherobank identified pheromones released by the summer fruit tortrix Adoxophyes orana and the South American potato tuber moth Phthorimaea operculella. In January of 2012, Pherobank BV became an independent limited company, and together with our partners we develop, produce, and supply sustainable solutions to assist farmers, government organizations, and others in satisfying the strict regulations regarding fruit and vegetable production with respect to food safety (e.g., GLOBAL-GAP, BRC), the environment, and quality control. Pherobank is a member of the International Biocontrol Manufacturers’ Association (IBMA) and is ISO9001:2015 certified.
Pherobank specializes in the development and production of pheromone lures and reference pheromone compounds. In addition to selling pheromone products, we can identify new pheromones, synthesize pheromones, and develop newly identified pheromones into an optimized, ready-to-use product.
Pherobank has all of the necessary facilities to achieve these goals, including state-of-the-art laboratory facilities with computerized chemical reactors and flow chemistry equipment, GC, GC-MS, GC-EAD, high-resolution 20- and 50-liter distillation equipment, and several HPLC systems for optimum pheromone purification. We produce our pheromone dispensers using a robotic filling station and can custom package your product on request in sachets or blister-packs imprinted with your company’s logo.
We supply world-wide.
Pherobank is ISO 9001:2015 certified.
Pherobank™ is a registered trademark of Pherobank BV.
Omnilure™ is a registered trademark of Pherobank BV.
Trifolio-M: Trifolio-M GmbH has been committed to the research and production of highly pure biomaterials since 1985. Located on the site of the Hessian Lahnau, we supply our European and global partners with biological plant protection products, biocides, pheromones and other application-ready products.
The focus of our work is the Indian neem tree (Azadirachta indica). Many of the ingredients contained in this tree are used in plant protection as well as in medicine.
What are the main challenges when you expand pheromone adoption?
Certis Europe: The use of pheromones for mating disruption offers a completely different means of crop protection for growers who are used to treating a pest problem when thresholds of infestation are reached and then retreating as necessary so there are indeed some challenges to adoption of pheromones:
• The idea of protecting the crop for the whole season by placing pheromone devices at the beginning, represents an important change of practice and, for the uninitiated, something of a leap of faith as to whether the effect will really last all season.
• The substantial organisation required to make correct placements and the workload involved in doing so when they are busy with other things may be seen as costly and also complicated in terms of positioning and spacing of the devices.
• Pheromones are often specific to one or two particular pests so it is perfectly possible that additional treatment will be needed for others. In the light of this, some growers may see a broad-spectrum insecticide that covers multiple pests as being easier to use.
• A further challenge is the need to have a contiguous area of at least 2 to 4 hectares using the pheromone treatment to achieve best performance so, for example, if neighbouring growers are not using it or there is just a very small area, then efficacy may be reduced.
BASF: Using pheromones as part of pest control practices is a fairly new concept for many farmers around the world, and the current limited application methods – hanging the pheromone dispensers in the field – can be a hurdle for them to integrate pheromones in their farming operations. But advancing innovation in the pheromone space brings even more benefits of this kind of crop protection, and we continue to educate farmers on these advantages. In the future, new technology will also make it easier for farmers to effectively use pheromones and see the benefits of applying them.
BioPhero: No matter the industry, new technologies and methodologies eventually have to be accepted by end-users in order to succeed. As mating disruption has proven its efficacy in certain crops – typically high-value and labour-intensive crops in greenhouses, orchards and vineyards – the technology has been adopted by end-users. The same will happen for field crops as growers see a compelling case for change. We believe this change is favoured by legislation, efficacy data and skilled farmer guidance provided by integrated pest management (IPM) companies. BioPhero’s role is to develop the right pheromone active ingredients at the right cost.
Pherobank: At this moment we were in need of versatile systems capable of releasing larger amounts of attractants in a precisely controlled way. We had the experience with release systems based upon permeable membrane that they start evaporating in the outer wrapping. The shelf life of those systems appeared to be limited. Furthermore we experienced that the active compound(s) would migrate through the dispenser-material also decreasing the effectiveness of the trapping system. With our new Pherobank Omnilure dispenser we have overcome these problems.
Trifolio-M: In fact the financial calculation for pheromones is challenging. You cannot calculate with a certain volume of sales year by year the same as we can expect for our biopesticide products. We, together with our national distribution partners or sometimes directly, need to attend national tenders.
On the other hand, we have a broad portfolio of niche pheromones. The annual demand is much better predictable. For these niche pheromones we are very well known in the plant protection sector. Trifolio-M is also keen to extend its portfolio to new insect pest pheromones as well. The flexibility described, is one of our major advantages to the multinational players.
What innovative technologies do you have to reduce pheromone production cost or increase pheromone efficiency?
Certis Europe: Technical developments allowed Certis to launch Cidetrak Meso last year. This new product saves time, labour and, therefore, cost for the grower as fewer dispensers are required per hectare (80 -100 instead of 500) to provide equivalent efficacy in the crop.
BASF: At BASF Agricultural Solutions, we are currently advancing several R&D efforts in the area of pheromones, including improved production processes and application methods for farmers. Thanks to our research, we have discovered ways to help farmers significantly reduce their labor requirements for placing and maintaining the pheromone dispensers. We are also working on new pheromone technologies that will allow users to apply pheromones even on broad-acre crops such as corn and rice.
BioPhero: We have developed a fermentation process – similar to beer brewing – where engineered yeast produces the pheromones. Until now, pheromones have been produced by chemical synthesis, a costly process that has restricted the use of mating disruption to high-value crops. Our technology enables efficient, industrial-scale production that will make pheromones economically accessible for field crop growers across the world.
Our patent-backed technology has been developed over seven years of intense research and supplemented by know-how on scale-up and purification.
Pherobank: We have developed efficient synthesis protocols for a large number of pheromone compounds. For the past year, we have seen an increase in the price of raw materials, which creates an additional challenge to keep our production costs under control.
Trifolio-M: In principle all parts of pheromone production are permanently in a development process.
Are there any advantages of pheromones compared to other biocontrol solutions?
Certis Europe: One of the features that applies to many bio-control products is that by their nature they require, very often, specific weather conditions (temperatures, humidity…) to reach high efficacy and consistent control of pests, being less reliable under different climatic conditions than conventional products. Because they are often less long-lasting, they can require repeat applications, and not many are rain fast. In addition, most have only a contact mode of action requiring very accurate application technique, for example to coat the whole leaf, to make them really effective and this is not yet optimised in some crops. A major advantage of the pheromone, Cidetrak is that it provides protection for a whole season once positioned in the right place in the area and in the tree canopy, lasting 180 days and has low dependency on weather conditions such as temperature, sunlight/UV or rain.
BASF: Compared to other biocontrol solutions, pheromones have a very different mode of action: Rather than interfering with the biochemistry of the targeted insects, they disrupt the insects’ behavior, making it very difficult for the male insect to locate female insects for mating, thus limiting the opportunity for larvae to inhabit and destroy crops. Since pheromones are essential to the insect mating process, the likelihood that an insect would develop resistance is low. This approach to pest control is commonly known as “mating disruption”. Pheromones are therefore an optimal tool for both pest management and resistance management programs. Additionally, pheromones are applied using dispensers that time-release the product to form a pheromone cloud. This cloud does not leave any residue, making it ideal for integrated pest management as well as organic crop production.
BioPhero: Many biocontrol solutions involve the release into nature of predatory insects, mites, bacteria or fungi. Thus, there is a risk of attack on non-target insects. Pheromones, on the other hand, are species-specific compounds already being released by the insects present in the habitat. Pheromones do not kill insects. They simply disrupt their mating.
In addition, pheromones are ahead of several biological agents in terms of timing. Pheromones prevent the adult moth insects from reproducing, whereas many biological agents attack their eggs or larvae. Pheromones are therefore pre-emptive in their action as they prevent the problem (i.e. the plant-eating larvae emerging) rather than rectifying it later.
Pherobank: We believe that the application of pheromones should be part of an integrated approach. The combinational application of biocontrol plus pheromones should be sufficient (in most cases) to control the pest. The advantage of pheromones is that they are well storable and can be manufactured fairly easy.
Trifolio-M: I see both, pheromones compared to other biocontrol solutions, as a complementary tool established in practice since many years. Nevertheless, the demand for mass trapping or mating disruption solutions will increase strongly to avoid or reduce the use of (chemical) pesticides.
How to use pheromones to give the best ROI to the growers?
Certis Europe: It is important to understand that pheromones work on the basis of keeping the pest population at a low level. Critical factors in achieving effective control are:
• The correct installation of the device following expert advice on positioning.
• Larger areas under pheromone protection (minimum 2 to 4 hectares) to provide better efficacy.
• Monitoring of pest infestation levels using trap systems so that any rapid population increase can be dealt with quickly, using a biorational or conventional insecticide as part of an Integrated Pest Management program, to bring down the infestation and maintain effective control.
BASF: BASF’s pheromone portfolio provides proven control of target pests in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. Pheromones can be used in combination with insecticide treatments as part of an integrated pest management program or as a stand-alone treatment. Our pheromone products come in ready-to-use, pre-filled dispensers. These do not need to be activated or opened, which means better worker safety and efficiency. Our pheromone portfolio is an excellent pest management option for farmers as they aim to produce high yielding, high quality crops for consumers while maintaining the sustainability of their operation.
BioPhero: The straightforward answer is: “It depends.” It depends on the pest, the field conditions and the region in question. Ultimately, our solutions must be at least as good as alternatives on the market at controlling field pests – with the added benefit of offering safer and more environmentally friendly pest control than conventional technologies. The beauty of using pheromones for insect control is that they are biological products that are distributed in very small amounts.
Pherobank: In our opinion one of the big advantages of applying pheromones for monitoring your pest is that you will be informed when the target insect is present and that you can use this information to fine-tune your integrated management approach to avoid unnecessary misuse of resources.
Trifolio-M: As much as necessary, as little as possible! We are interested in long lasting cooperations with our customers, which means, we support them to grow their plants under good ecological and economical conditions. This is our objective.
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