Biopesticides a “massive opportunity” for NZ kiwifruit industry

As consumer demand for residue-free produce rises, New Zealand’s kiwifruit industry would benefit from fast-tracking its shift towards biopesticides, a University of Auckland researcher says.

Through her internship at Plant & Food Research, Madeleine Trusewich determined that shifting sooner rather than later to biocontrol “would be a massive opportunity for New Zealand”, particularly for kiwifruit, the country’s largest single horticultural export by volume and value.

Supermarket chains in Britain and Europe are increasingly setting residue limits and banning produce exposed to certain pesticides.

Against this backdrop, Kiwifruit exporter Zespri has been working with Plant & Food Research, AgResearch and the Bio-Protection Research Centre to develop and promote “next generation” biopesticides – pest and disease control products based on natural biological agents, including fungi, bacteria, yeast and plant oils.  Zespri already restricts the use of pesticides to comply with or do better than EU limits.

But despite significant health and environmental benefits, the uptake of biopesticides has remained low in the kiwifruit industry, in line with global trends.

To find out why, Madeleine Trusewich analysed existing data, observed the industry through her internship at Plant & Food Research, and carried out in-depth interviews with orchardists, suppliers, scientists, agro-chemical company staff and others in the industry.

“I found widespread negative, but inaccurate, preconceptions about biocontrol – that it is ‘niche’ or ‘fringe’ and unproven, that it doesn’t work as well as chemicals, and that it’s more expensive and labour intensive,” says Ms Trusewich.

She did the research as part of a Master of Bioscience Enterprise, a programme jointly delivered by the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, the Business School and the Faculty of Law to teach students with a science background how to understand, protect and exploit the value of research.

“Generally, biopesticides are more expensive and they don’t visibly produce a fast result because they work by enhancing the vitality of the soil or the plants’ natural resilience to pests and disease,” Ms Trusewich says.

“But you can achieve just as good efficacy if you use biopesticides in conjunction with other biocontrol methods, like keeping tidy weed strips, monitoring for pests and diseases, and factoring in the effect of weather and other conditions.”

All Zespri fruit is required to be produced in line with the Zespri KiwiGreen Integrated Pest Management programme, which Zespri says ensures that pests and disease are controlled in a safe and environmentally sound manner. Biopesticides are one element of this programme, but are not currently widely used.

Ms Trusewich also analysed growers’ attitudes to change.

“Overall, they’re happy with the status quo, but there is a small group of more innovative orchardists, especially organic growers, who are looking for alternative ways of doing things.”

She says kiwifruit growers are the ultimate source of knowledge when it comes to pest and disease control and they have a crucial role to play in the co-creation of biopesticides.

“The industry should foster a positive attitude towards change and encourage, inspire, and incentivise growers to experiment with biopesticides. The regulatory environment is fast-moving, and the horticultural industry is racing to replace products that have been banned, product by product – that’s a slow shift. Big global chemical companies are starting to move into biocontrol now because they’re seeing a market opportunity,” she says.

“One of the scientists interviewed commented that these companies will probably come in and buy the pipeline of products New Zealand has developed.

“Shifting sooner rather than later to biocontrol is a massive opportunity for New Zealand. The industry’s response to Psa demonstrated their strength in uniting for a common cause, so we can be confident in its capacity to respond to this inevitable shift.”

Ms Trusewich’s full report is available online HERE.

Source:  Auckland University 

Biopesticides being tested against moth pest

Scientists working under the banner of the Lincoln University based New Zealand Bio-Protection Research Centre are examining how to harness naturally occurring fungi and bacteria as biopesticides capable of killing insect pests.

Centre Director Professor Travis Glare says they are currently performing field trials against the diamondback moth, a caterpillar pest, which has become a major problem worldwide attacking cruciferous crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy.

“About $1 billion per year is spent on trying to control this pest. One of the key challenges posed by the diamondback is its ability to quickly become resistant to chemical pesticides.”

Researchers working on the project are tapping into the expertise of specialists at New Zealand Genomics Ltd (NZGL), a genomics infrastructure provider established in 2010 by three universities – Massey University, The University of Auckland and University of Otago – with support from the Government. NZGL provides an integrated suite of genomic services involving gene sequencing, bioinformatics and genomics appropriate information technology.

Professor Glare says the Bio-Protection Research Centre, a Government-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), is working with strains of Beauveria, a fungus that acts as a parasite and can kill or seriously disable insects. They are testing chemicals released by the fungus for their potential as active agents in biopesticides.

“Beauveria has a lot of strain variations which generate different toxins capable of killing insect pests. We are particularly interested in working out which genes encode for those toxins.”

“So far we have sequenced four strains of Beauveria, and we plan to compare these with strains from elsewhere in the world to find variations that may be even better.”

Professor Glare says NZGL has proved to be an incredible resource for their research, providing not only gene sequencing services but also bioinformatics so the massive amounts of data generated can be analysed fully.

“As a Centre of Research Excellence we rely on NZGL to help us handle the large datasets and bioinformatics that drive our science. It is also incredibly useful to have someone you can talk to and work over results with.”

The research has attracted commercial partner interest and Professor Glare says the spray tests they are now doing are to test their efficacy in field situations.

Collaboration deal is struck between Marrone Bio Innovations and Plant & Food Research

Dr Alison Stewart...optimistic.

Dr Alison Stewart…optimistic.

California-based Marrone Bio Innovations Inc and The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Limited have announced the signing of a collaborative research agreement.

The agreement covers several novel bio-active organisms and natural products which Plant & Food Research will provide to MBI for the expected development of biopesticides and plant health products. The MBI field of use includes conventional and organic agricultural uses, turf and ornamental, home and garden, and forestry.

Dr Alison Stewart, MBI’s senior vice president and chief technical officer, said she sees great potential in the agreement.

“Having been involved in the New Zealand biopesticide industry for 25 years I am very familiar with the potential of the Institute’s library of bio-actives. Now, I am optimistic that MBI’s expertise and technology can drive these actives toward successful commercialization.”

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