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Philippe Nicot, Biocomes:

Farmers don’t want pesticides, but in the meantime, they have a business to run

If you really want to make a difference as a researcher in the field of integrated pest management and biological control, you need to cooperate in an early stage with all actors in the chain, including industry. That is the firm believe of Dr. Philippe Nicot, who was recently re-elected for a second term as president of the West Palearctic Regional Section of the International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC). ‘The field is in dire need of more biological control products, so you better make sure in an early stage of development that a particular product has practical potential.

Fostering collaboration

Like the BIOCOMES consortium, IOBC fosters collaboration between scientists and developers who seek to create new tools in biological control and integrated pest management. ‘In the past, too many initiatives from various labs ended up not being applicable in the field. By involving industry in your research, as well as advisers from extension services, you are stimulated to keep this applicability in mind all the time’, Nicot says.

Better efficacy

Nicot feels somewhat uncomfortable with the ‘finger-pointing view’ on modern day farmers and their use of pesticides. ‘The majority of our farmers are very much aware that society does not want more pesticides. Most of them don’t want that themselves either! But in the meantime, they need to produce crops and have a business to run. In France, the farmers lost almost 75% of the synthetic control products that were available before 1993, after re-evaluation over the past years. Those lost plant protection tools are far from being replaced by biological or other alternatives.’

‘Using the biocontrol products that farmers do have at their disposal is usually more complex than spraying chemicals, and protection is not always as efficacious’, Nicot says. ‘Optimal deployment of biocontrol products requires some understanding of their – often intricate – modes of action and solid knowledge on the key factors that influence their efficacy. Therefore, public research, industry and advisory services also need to cooperate on improving the acquisition of this crucial knowledge and its delivery to the farmers in an operational form. Farmers need detailed user guides or decision support systems that facilitate the optimal utilization of the products.’

Half of the pesticides in 2025

The French government has set a steep goal for the year 2025: no more than half of the amount of synthetic pesticides compared to the year 2008. At Nicot’s institute INRA, it was calculated that an average reduction of 30% is already possible, just through a change of management practices, without loss of profitability. ‘To actually achieve this, we will have to cooperate with all parties: research, industry, extension services, and also the government to promote information services for farmers.’

Rational optimist

Nicot calls himself a rational optimist when it comes to the future of integrated pest management in future farming. ‘Of course, we have to be ambitious. Some say that in heated greenhouse farming there already is a degree of integrated pest management for approximately 80% of the acreage in several EU countries. But I feel we can still do better than that, particularly when it comes to disease control. Of course the biggest challenge is the development of biocontrol tools and IPM strategies for open field farming and particularly arable crops. Pioneering biocontrol companies have shown that you really have to be tenacious. But also the increasing cooperation with research has made a difference over the years.’

Durability as a future challenge

The ultimate challenge in pest management may be the durability of biocontrol agents. ‘In my own lab, we work on the fungus Botrytis cinerea, which causes disease on numerous crops. It is known that this fungus sometimes has already worked its way around a new product before it is even released on the market. Our data on large numbers of strains of this fungus and other plant pathogens already show that there is quite a bit of diversity in their level of sensitivity to several biocontrol agents with different modes of action. Could massive use of those biocontrol agents eventually lead to the selection of problematic strains as chemical control did? Cooperation is essential on those issues too.’

This article was written by Nora de Rijk, Communication and dissemination BIOCOMES project.

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