Jan. 27, 2023
By Sarah Harding, PhD
The World BioProtection Forum (WBF), headquartered at Swansea University in the UK, was established in 2019 with the vision of bridging the gap between the biocontrol industry and academia.
In a crowded marketplace, the WBF claims to differentiate itself by approaching challenges in a different way to other trade groups, and this is already bearing fruit. For example, the WBF was the only organisation to spot the opportunity to work with the UK on biopesticides regulatory reform when the UK Government announced in 2021 that it would be revising a number of regulations post-Brexit. The WBF’s unique strategy is to first enact change in a competent authority known to be willing to change and, once those reforms have been achieved, to use that case to encourage further reforms in other regions. It is hoped that this will help end the 30-year stalemate between the biocontrol sector and regulatory authorities across the globe.
At the same time, the WBF has been working with a group in Germany on opportunities for Global Harmonisation of Biopesticides, and the organisation hopes that within the next year it will have helped drive the first Global Review of a biopesticide product.
Key to the WBF’s successes is its advisory board, currently numbering nearly 30 international experts from industry, academia, policy making other relevant areas, who meet at least 5 times each year to identify challenges and guide the organisation’s management team on how to address them. The result is a truly unique organisation dedicated to solving the biocontrol sector’s various challenges in a meaningful way.
Dr Minshad Ansari, Founder and Chairman of the WBF, has worked in the biocontrol sector himself – both as an academic and as an industry player – for more than 30 years. In this interview, he explained why biocontrol is so important right now, and how the WBF is working to advance alternatives that make sustainable agriculture possible.
Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you found the WBF?
As a former academic, and now the Chief Executive of a biopesticide company – Bionema Ltd – I could see that academia had a lot to offer industry, and vice versa, but the two sides were not connecting well enough to take advantage of the opportunities they could bring to each other. I knew a lot of people who had ideas for novel biologicals, that could help replace banned chemicals in agriculture, for example, but didn’t have the resources to get those products to market, so those great ideas were going to waste. So, to start with, I just wanted to bridge those gaps, and help get more innovations to market.
How does the WBF bridge the gaps between academia and industry?
I think you first need to appreciate what each side is missing, and how they can help each other. To start with, academia is teeming with novel ideas. This is particularly true for the BioAg sector, I think. When you consider the amount of work being done on microbes, and those brilliant scientists who have devoted their lives to cataloguing and characterising not just different species, but different variants of species, there is a wealth of knowledge that can be converted easily into biological products – biopesticides, biostimulants and biofertilisers and agri-inputs.
But knowing about these potential uses of microbes, and doing something with that knowledge? Those are two totally different ambitions and skillsets. This is where industry comes in, with that all-important funding, of course, but also with the commercial know-how to get novel technologies to market. The earlier the two parties connect, the sooner those novel technologies can be put on a path to success, and that is what we want to help achieve.
At our annual flagship event, we host dedicated sessions on precisely this goal, and we promote networking activities between different stakeholders. The concept is so popular that we are also looking into doing some interim activities, dedicated to connecting industry and academia, throughout the year too.
Industry, academia, policy makers and other stakeholders are all interested in finding alternatives that enable sustainable agriculture. We try to connect those people and encourage them to work together – we encourage them to Collaborate to Innovate.
The biocontrol sector has a lot of challenges to overcome, especially robust foliar formulations to tackle pests, diseases and plant health, so let’s help each other, advance the sector, and we will all benefit.
What are the most important challenges in the sector?
First, we are short on innovation. I know I just said that academia is teeming with ideas but, in the current environment, very few of those ideas are being realised and commercialised. Many academics don’t see the value of working with industry, but some of the most brilliant scientific technologies of this century have been invented by academics, and then developed and/or commercialised via collaborations with large commercial entities. I believe industry and academia have to build trust, and work together. If this doesn’t happen, many start-ups will not achieve their potential, and fewer novel products will reach the market. This is why the WBF is providing a platform to accelerate innovation by connecting industry and academia.
Second, we still have problems with formulation. Biological products are often more ‘fragile’ than conventional chemicals, so we need to formulate these products in a way that ensures their survival and integrity during storage, mixing, application and on the field. Modern technologies are offering a lot of solutions for this, and it is also another example of where connections between industry and academia can help. At Bionema Ltd, for example, we have been working with the University of Birmingham’s Engineering Department on microencapsulation, with some great results. There are dozens of technologies from other industries – pharmaceuticals, for example – that can be applied to biocontrol, and working with institutions involved in those technologies in other areas can open a wealth of opportunities to our own sector.
Finally, we have continued problems with regulatory approvals of new natural and safe microbial alternatives. This has been going on for 30 years or more, and many people in industry are frustrated by the stalemate with policy makers and regulators. Current regulations in the vast majority of countries, including the EU, are still too expensive, still too slow, and still not suited to the biological entities under review. This is something else that we have been working on at the WBF since 2021.
Can you tell us more about the WBF’s work in regulatory reform?
We are fortunate in that our Advisory Board comprises people from all walks of life, which always gives us a broad and often unique perspective on how to deal with problems. As it happens, some of our Advisors have some expertise in communications and public affairs, and when they heard about the UK Government’s commitment in 2021 to revise UK regulations post-Brexit, they spotted an opportunity to make sure the UK’s biopesticide’s regulations were included in those reforms. The concept was backed by the whole Advisory Board, and we embarked on a campaign, which we are currently about halfway through, to help reform biopesticide regulations in the UK.
However, the genius behind the idea was that it has never just been about UK reform – this has always been about global reform. The WBF’s strategy is to first enact change in a competent authority known to be willing to change – in this case, the UK – and once those reforms have been achieved, our vision is that the case will be used to encourage further reforms in other regions, such as the EU, or even the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which guides regulations in many countries across the world.
So far, the campaign has included the production of a white paper – can you tell us more about that?
The WBF collected advice from dozens of experts across the world and collated it into one authoritative White Paper: Creating the World’s Best-in-Class Biopesticide / Bioprotectant Regulatory System. We published this in 2022, and it is being provided freely to all supporting members of the WBF, as well as to UK Government ministers, advisors and policy makers. (Non-members can also purchase a copy from the WBF website.)
Throughout the White Paper, 26 recommendations for biopesticide reform are provided, along with supporting rationales and scientific arguments. Based on advising experts’ real-world experience of product development, and extensive scientific knowledge, these recommendations are intended to refocus data requirements in a manner more suited, relevant and appropriate for biocontrol solutions. The White Paper was written with the intention or providing the UK Government with an expert-based resource on which to base their revisions for biopesticides regulations, to create a better system that is better suited to biological products while continuing to provide a robust risk assessment.
The White Paper also recommends Global Harmonisation. How is the WBF supporting this process?
Actually, it appears to be a little-known fact that a system for Global Harmonisation of biopesticides already exists. Under the leadership of the OECD, regulators have developed the ‘joint review’ or workshare process, which gives participating countries the opportunity to reach compatible regulatory decisions.
This is great, because joint reviews strengthen the regulatory process, hasten time to market for the companies developing the products, and enable same-time access to biological products by growers across the world. In collaboration with a German group called IDRG.eu, the WBF has been running monthly virtual webinars on this topic since mid-2022, and will continue to do so throughout 2023. Anyone interested in this route for achieving multiple product approvals at one time should join us at next month’s webinar.
It is our greatest hope that, with this kind of support, the first Global Review of a biopesticide product will soon be achieved.
How does all this benefit members of the WBF?
The potential market for biological agriculture is huge. So, when we say that the future is ‘sustainable’, we don’t just mean in the environmental sense – we also mean that it is sustainable economically. Every person working in biocontrol has the potential to be successful – to discover, develop and commercialise new biological products that will enable clean agriculture, and in doing so to contribute to a greener food production system.
Our activities directly reflect the needs of our members, so they have a voice in guiding our initiatives that might help them to address their own most important hurdles. As demonstrated by our approach to biopesticide regulatory reform, we approach challenges in a different way to other organisations, and we aim to get results quickly – certainly in less than 30 years!
Our supporting members also benefit from prioritised (and significantly discounted) access to our events, workshops and webinars, and we are always open to personally connecting different members with others who can help them to reach their goals.
Doesn’t competition get in the way of collaboration?
Well, I don’t think so, and this is something I am continually trying to explain. The founding principle of the WBF is that if we all work together, we can all actually achieve more, and succeed more.
I would like everyone in the biocontrol sector to stop seeing each other as competitors, and instead see potential partners and colleagues. There are literally billions of microbes and compounds waiting to be discovered and used in biological agriculture – there are easily enough to go around!
What is your prediction for the biocontrol sector in the future?
I firmly believe that the biocontrol sector is the future. The global market for biological products is already growing 3.5 times faster than conventional chemicals, and I think that trend will continue – especially as the EU has stated that it intends to ban 505 pesticides by 2030. Pressures from governments, environmental groups and consumers all align to reduce the use of chemicals on our crops, and the only way to do that while ensuring food security is to replace those chemicals with sustainable biological alternatives.
I dream of a future in which our agriculture system uses no chemicals at all. That might not happen in my lifetime, but I believe it is a possibility, and if I can contribute to making the world’s agricultural system move in that direction, then I will have lived a good life and my work will have been worthwhile.
For more information about the WBF, please visit https://www.worldbioprotectionforum.com/
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