Natural alternatives to pesticides under the microscope

Scientists working for the Economic & Social Research Council have been looking at why British farmers are not embracing natural alternatives to chemical pesticides.

According to the ESRC, biological pesticides which are less damaging to the environment and often more effective than their chemical alternatives, particularly when the pests they are targeting have built up resistances.

Chemicals also endanger workers’ health and can contaminate groundwater.

“It is evident that biopesticides have a potentially important contribution to make to a competitive agriculture industry,” said lead researcher, Professor Wyn Grant, at the University of Warwick.

“They have the potential to increase consumer confidence in fruit and vegetables whilst moving away from a polarised and over-simplified choice between conventional and organic modes of production.”

Biological control agents such as naturally occurring fungi, bacteria or viruses are applied in much the same way as chemical pesticides to kill unwanted insects, but have little impact on other organisms, are compatible with other natural enemies, do not leave toxic residues and are relatively cheap to develop.

Most of the scientific community agrees that these benefits outweigh the disadvantages of lower effectiveness and a shorter shelf life.

They have been widely adopted in the USA but are far less common in the EU.

The researchers said a lack of mutual recognition between EU member states is a key reason why uptake here is low.

This makes it hard for the small companies – often start-ups – that usually develop biopesticides to obtain economies of scale.

“The absence of a Europe-wide market for biopesticides is a significant obstacle to their wider commercial availability,” the researchers said, though moves are underway to remedy this.

They also pointed to “patchy” interaction between the regulator and retailers, and a lack of involvement of environmental groups, which they put down to indifference rather than hostility.

David Gibbs

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