Biopesticides, a contraction of 'biological pesticides', include several types of pest management intervention: through predatory, parasitic, or chemical relationships. The term has been associated historically with biological control - and by implication - the manipulation of living organisms. Regulatory positions can be influenced by public perceptions, thus:
- in the EU, biopesticides have been defined as "a form of pesticide based on micro-organisms or natural products".
- the US EPA states that they "include naturally occurring substances that control pests (biochemical pesticides), microorganisms that control pests (microbial pesticides), and pesticidal substances produced by plants containing added genetic material (plant-incorporated protectants) or PIPs".
They are typically created by growing and concentrating naturally occurring organisms and/or their metabolites including bacteria and other microbes, fungi, nematodes, proteins, etc. They are often considered to be important components of integrated pest management (IPM) programmes, and have received much practical attention as substitutes to synthetic chemical plant protection products (PPPs). The Manual of Biocontrol Agents (2009: formerly the Biopesticide Manual) gives a review of the available biological insecticide (and other biology-based control) products.
Biopesticides fall into three major classes:
- Microbial pesticides which consist of bacteria, entomopathogenic fungi or viruses (and sometimes includes the metabolites that bacteria or fungi produce). Entomopathogenic nematodes are also often classed as microbial pesticides, even though they are multi-cellular.
- Biochemical pesticides or herbal pesticides are naturally occurring substances that control (or monitor in the case of pheromones) pests and microbial diseases.
- Plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs) have genetic material from other species incorporated into their genetic material (i.e. GM crops). Their use is controversial, especially in many European countries.
- RNAi pesticides, some of which are topical and some of which are absorbed by the crop.
Biopesticides have usually no known function in photosynthesis, growth or other basic aspects of plant physiology; however, their biological activity against insect pests, nematodes, fungi and other organisms is well documented. Every plant species has developed a built-in unique chemical complex structure that protects it from pests. The plant kingdom offers a diverse array of complex chemical structures and almost every imaginable biological activity. These biodegradable, economical and renewable alternatives are used especially under organic farming systems.
RNA interference is under study for possible use as a spray-on insecticide by multiple companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer. Such sprays do not modify the genome of the target plant. The RNA could be modified to maintain its effectiveness as target species evolve tolerance to the original. RNA is a relatively fragile molecule that generally degrades within days or weeks of application. Monsanto estimated costs to be on the order of $5/acre.
RNAi has been used to target weeds that tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. RNAi mixed with a a silicone surfactant that let the RNA molecules enter air-exchange holes in the plant’s surface that disrupted the gene for tolerance, affecting it long enough to let the herbicide work. This strategy would allow the continued use of glyphosate-based herbicides, but would not per se assist a herbicide rotation strategy that relied on alternating Roundup with others.
They can be made with enough precision to kill some insect species, while not harming others. Monsanto is also developing an RNA spray to kill potato beetles One challenge is to make it linger on the plant for a week, even if it's raining. The Potato beetle has become resistant to more than 60 conventional insecticides.
Monsanto lobbied EPA to exempt RNAi pesticide products from any specific regulations (beyond those that apply to all pesticides) and be exempted from rodent toxicity, allergenicity and residual environmental testing. In 2014 an EPA advisory group found little evidence of a risk to people from eating RNA.
However, in 2012, the Australian Safe Food Foundation alleged that the RNA trigger designed to change wheat's starch content might interfere with the gene for a human liver enzyme. Supporters countered that RNA does not appear to make it past human saliva or stomach acids. The US National Honey Bee Advisory Board told EPA that using RNAi would put natural systems at “the epitome of risk”. The beekeepers cautioned that pollinators could be hurt by unintended effects and that the genomes of many insects are still unknown. Other unassessed risks include ecological (given the need for sustained presence for herbicide and other applications) and the possible for RNA drift across species boundaries.
Monsanto has invested in multiple companies for their RNA expertise, including Beeologics (for RNA that kills a parasitic mite that infests hives and for manufacturing technology) and Preceres (nanoparticle lipidoid coatings) and licensed technology from Alnylam and Tekmira. In 2012 Syngenta acquired Devgen, a European RNA partner. Startup Forrest Innovations is investigating RNAi as a solution to citrus greening disease that in 2014 caused 22 percent of oranges in Florida to fall off the trees.
Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterial disease of Lepidoptera, Coleoptera and Diptera, is a well-known insecticide example. The toxin from B. thuringiensis (Bt toxin) has been incorporated directly into plants through the use of genetic engineering. The use of Bt Toxin is particularly controversial. Its manufacturers claim it has little effect on other organisms, and is more environmentally friendly than synthetic pesticides. However, at least one scientific study has suggested that it may lead to slight histopathological changes on the liver and kidneys of mammals with Bt toxin in their diet.
Other microbial control agents include products based on:
- entomopathogenic fungi (e.g.Beauveria bassiana, Paecilomyces fumosoroseus, Lecanicillium spp., Metarhizium spp.),
- plant disease control agents: include Trichoderma spp. and Ampelomyces quisqualis (a hyper-parasite of grape powdery mildew); Bacillus subtilis is also used to control plant pathogens.
- beneficial nematodes attacking insect (e.g. Steinernema feltiae) or slug (e.g. Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita) pests
- entomopathogenic viruses (e.g.. Cydia pomonella granulovirus).
- weeds and rodents have also been controlled with microbial agents.
Various naturally occurring materials, including fungal and plant extracts, have been described as biopesticides. Products in this category include:
- Insect pheromones and other semiochemicals
- Fermentation products such as Spinosad (a macro-cyclic lactone)
- Chitosan: a plant in the presence of this product will naturally induce systemic resistance (ISR) to allow the plant to defend itself against disease, pathogens and pests.
- Biopesticides may include natural plant-derived products, which include alkaloids, terpenoids, phenolics and other secondary chemicals. Certain vegetable oils such as canola oil are known to have pesticidal properties. Products based on extracts of plants such as garlic have now been registered in the EU and elsewhere.
- Naturally occurring minerals such as baking soda may also have pesticidal applications.
Biopesticides are biological or biologically-derived agents, that are usually applied in a manner similar to chemical pesticides, but achieve pest management in an environmentally friendly way. With all pest management products, but especially microbial agents, effective control requires appropriate formulation and application.
Biopesticides for use against crop diseases have already established themselves on a variety of crops. For example, biopesticides already play an important role in controlling downy mildew diseases. Their benefits include: a 0-Day Pre-Harvest Interval (see: maximum residue limit), the ability to use under moderate to severe disease pressure, and the ability to use as a tank mix or in a rotational program with other registered fungicides. Because some market studies estimate that as much as 20% of global fungicide sales are directed at downy mildew diseases, the integration of biofungicides into grape production has substantial benefits in terms of extending the useful life of other fungicides, especially those in the reduced-risk category.
A major growth area for biopesticides is in the area of seed treatments and soil amendments. Fungicidal and biofungicidal seed treatments are used to control soil borne fungal pathogens that cause seed rots, damping-off, root rot and seedling blights. They can also be used to control internal seed–borne fungal pathogens as well as fungal pathogens that are on the surface of the seed. Many biofungicidal products also show capacities to stimulate plant host defence and other physiological processes that can make treated crops more resistant to a variety of biotic and abiotic stresses.
- No harmful residues detected
- Can be cheaper than chemical pesticides when locally produced.
- Can be more effective than chemical pesticides in the long-term (as demonstrated, for example, by the LUBILOSA Programme)
- High specificity: which may require an exact identification of the pest/pathogen and the use of multiple products to be used; although this can also be an advantage in that the biopesticide is less likely to harm species other than the target
- Often slow speed of action (thus making them unsuitable if a pest outbreak is an immediate threat to a crop)
- Often variable efficacy due to the influences of various biotic and abiotic factors (since biopesticides are usually living organisms, which bring about pest/pathogen control by multiplying within the target insect pest/pathogen)
- Living organisms evolve and increase their resistance to biological, chemical, physical or any other form of control. If the target population is not exterminated or rendered incapable of reproduction, the surviving population can acquire a tolerance of whatever pressures are brought to bear, resulting in an evolutionary arms race.
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- International Biocontrol Manufacturers' Association (IBMA)