Biocontrol and 'machine learning' lead the sustainable fight against pests

The EU is preparing a legislative battery to limit the use of pesticides in its fields. This initiative aims to make the Green Deal and the Farm to Table strategy a reality. The dangers of chemical pesticides for health are evident, as they can cause dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive and endocrine effects. In addition, the use of certain chemical pesticides reduces the population of pollinators, absolutely vital for the development of crops.

The agri-food production chain seeks sustainable and innovative alternatives for pest control. And it has targeted, for example, AI. An example is the AgrarIA project, a consortium of 24 public and private organizations coordinated by GMV, within the framework of the Spain Digital 2025 Agenda and the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

The project is financed through the Artificial Intelligence R&D Missions Program of the Secretary of State for Digitization and Artificial Intelligence (Sedia) of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and with the financing of the Recovery, Resilience and Transformation Plan funds. . A use case within the project consists of research on new products for pest control. This is how Miguel Hormigo Ruiz, director of GMV's Industry Sector, explains it: "The development of the project is based on a work strategy based on four main axes: data governance, sustainability, the importance of the value chain and the relevance of Artificial Intelligence platform concept. And within the initiatives that we are carrying out on the AI ​​platform is the issue of pests.”

“A team of drones monitors the greenhouse. They have special cameras with a spectral scope that allows light to be seen, but they are also capable of detecting the signs of a pest on a specific leaf of a specific plant, such as a tomato," says Hormigo.

Once the pest is detected, the information is sent to the platform. To prevent its spread, the most suitable biopesticide is analyzed and at the same time the system informs if it has been developed or if it needs to be created quickly. The drones will also diffuse that biopesticide precisely through micro-sprinklers.

'insect-eating' fungus

Glen Biotech, a company acquired by Symborg, has worked with the fungus 'Beauveria bassiana' 203, treated for bioinsecticide purposes. Recently the European authorities have given free run for commercial use. The system consists of controlling the insects that form a plague thanks to this fungus, which makes them disappear.

Symborg is a reference company from Murcia with a catalog of disruptive products such as biostimulants, biofertilizers and biocontrol solutions based on microorganisms and biomolecules. It has subsidiaries with its own team in nine countries, apart from Spain: Turkey, China, France, Portugal, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brazil.

Value proposals AI is already key in pest control (above)/ Ainhoa ​​Martínez, researcher of the Irnasa-CSIC project on microbiome management (below left)/ Murcian Symborg is working on a system that controls pest insects thanks to the fungus 'Beauveria bassiana' 203, which makes them disappear (bottom right)

Francisco Javier García Domínguez, Chief Marketing Officer at Symborg, points out that there are four market demands for this type of product: "Environmental protection, regulatory tension, that of the consumer who demands that agricultural production meets safety standards and food quality and the technical issue of cancellation of old active substances.

Regarding the eternal doubt about the costs of insecticides and biological fertilizers, García Domínguez affirms that «they are not expensive products. Agriculture must be profitable. The farmer seeks a return on investment. If the solution works, it's not expensive."

Faced with those who think that there will no longer be chemical pesticides, García Domínguez clarifies that «biocontrol does not have answers to all problems. It is not that traditional chemistry has to disappear. We must seek a combined management, in such a way that effective and sustainable responses are given to what the consumer and the legislator are looking for.

Microbiomes

The Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology of Salamanca (Irnasa-CSIC) is carrying out research based on the management of soil microbiomes to make plants more resistant to insect pests.

Although microorganism-based strategies have been used for decades, a beneficial microorganism or simple consortium has been applied to a field crop. According to Ainhoa ​​Martínez Medina, principal investigator of the project, "the results have been irregular, as the farmers declare, because the interactions are not maintained and we are forgetting the entire ecology of the soil."

“The latest trend is to work with more complex communities of microorganisms, even with entire microbiomes, as is the case in our case. The idea is to recover that natural microbiome of the plants to make them less dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides," says Martínez.

And how is it done? "To recover the microbiome, we rely on the crop rotation strategy," says the researcher. When a plant grows in soil it will promote the development of a microbiome. If we then put in another plant, we already have a microbiome that can help the new plant grow in that soil. We use plants that we have verified in previous studies that they can generate beneficial microbiomes, such as some typical grasses of the dehesas. And then on that soil that they have modulated with that microbiome we plant species of agricultural interest, such as tomato or lettuce ». Now they are carrying out bioassays, but next year they will take the experiments to the field.

Radiation

One of the systems already implemented to combat pests is biological control with radiation. In Spain, the Center for Biological Pest Control, a bioplant in Caudete de las Fuentes (Valencia), has been a pioneer of this technique since 2007. Here they deal with the main method of combating the Mediterranean fruit fly, which mainly affects citrus fruits. After the sterilization of the males, a massive release is carried out, which prevents fertilization and preserves the cultures.

Another sustainable way to control pests is the use of pheromones. Pheromones are natural substances that the females of certain species emit to incite the male to mate. If copies of those scents are released in the crops, it hinders the male from following the trail. This reduces mating and the population.

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