Posts Tagged ‘ Practice ’

Issue 104: Biocontrol is Good Agricultural Practice

January/February 2009
Authors: Stephen Goodwin & Marilyn Steiner

Some of the 40,000ha of greenhouse industry in the Almeria region, Spain.

©2008 Google – Imagery ©2008 TerraMetrics

Reproduced with special permission Google Earth

Biocontrol has emerged as an essential component of Good Agricultural Practice (GAP1) in greenhouse vegetable crop production, as food safety establishes itself as the key driver in the supply chain. In this article we offer a snapshot of recent movements in the world of biocontrol and greenhouse vegetable food production. Food safety may be king, but biocontrol is the loyal servant for greenhouse producers to deliver this goal to Australian consumers. While Australian growers may not have quite the same abundance of biocontrol agents commercially available to overseas greenhouse vegetable producers, there are distinct signs of improvement and excitement about future prospects. By Stephen Goodwin & Marilyn Steiner

Biocontrol has come a long way
In the early period of biocontrol development and use, biologically based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was simply regarded as a possible alternative to pesticides that would overcome pesticide resistance problems. This is a justifiable reason for anyone to consider trying this new approach and many greenhouse vegetable growers did. The number of biocontrol agents commercially produced for greenhouse crop use has expanded dramatically since the appearance of the two foundation species, Encarsia formosa for greenhouse whitefly, and Phytoseiulus persimilis for two-spotted mite, back in the 1970s. In a 2000 survey, 29 biocontrol agents were identified as in common use against 19 key pest species in Canada2. This is typical of experiences in Europe and elsewhere. These are produced by a number of companies worldwide, including the Dutch company Koppert; and Biobest (Belgium); Syngenta Bioline and BCP-Certis (UK); Bio-Bee (Israel); Applied Bionomics (Canada), and others. Interestingly, the first to recognise the commercial opportunities of biocontrol were the greenhouse growers, the Kopperts in The Netherlands and the Buntings in the UK. Thirty years later, the annual global turnover in biocontrol agent sales (producers and distributors) is estimated at AUD$74 million.

What was going on in Australia during this time? In 1999, we brought a number of biocontrol specialists to Australia for a series of interstate workshops to showcase IPM developments in protected cropping overseas. One of those speakers was Karel Bolckmans, Director of R&D with Koppert Biological Systems, who had this to say about biocontrol then3:

“Biological pest control is well established in European greenhouse vegetable production, and has been the cornerstone of IPM for the last 30 years, (and) that as well as its environmental benefits, IPM adoption has given European growers significant savings in labour and costs.”

Mr Bolckmans explained “that biological control isn’t (about) total control of pests, but rather effective management of the pests, a concept with which growers need to become familiar. There is,” he said, “an ‘acceptable level’ of pests in certain crops – for instance a tomato plant can lose a third of its leaves to leaf miner, without the crop being affected.

“It is essential,” Mr Bolckmans said, “for growers to keep records, which show insect patterns over a year, and in which parts of the greenhouse, pest outbreaks start. Critical to the successful use of biological control agents is the timing and method of release.”

According to Mr Bolckmans, ”biological control without some form of chemical control is almost impossible, but it is possible to use low toxicity sprays, such as spray oils, insecticidal soaps and garlic preparations. Spraying technique and timing are very important, and it’s useful to detect ‘trouble spots’ in the house, since these can often be spot-treated with sprays.”

Mr Bolckmans said that “introducing IPM to a greenhouse enterprise is quite complex and cannot be done without technical support.” Echoing the comments of the other speakers, he said that “for growers converting from chemicals alone to IPM, it’s a case of ‘weaning off’, not going cold turkey.”

We like to think these speakers whetted the appetite of Australian growers and others for biocontrol as there was increased interest both from growers and producers of biocontrol agents. Despite this, development of this industry has been slower than elsewhere, due mainly to the lesser demand for its products by the relatively small greenhouse industry. Of the 10 local producers, Biological Services in Loxton, SA, is the leading national supplier to the protected cropping industry, with seven products available and others planned. In New Zealand there are two biocontrol producers that have only a small range of biocontrol agents, but service a greater area. New Zealand has bumblebees ( Bumblebees are sensitive to many pesticides, so biocontrol becomes an imperative.

As with many things, it can take a disaster or some other event of similar magnitude, to capture peoples’ attention. These events can have the effect of ‘forcing’ action, as opposed to under normal conditions drawing the curious or more knowledgeable who seek to be ahead of the pack, to adopt change. The former usually results in larger scale change acting faster, which is what biocontrol needs right now in this industry in Australia, but what might ‘force’ this to happen here? Overseas, there are some recent examples of major impacts that have forced changes to the perception of biocontrol.

Good and bad impacts can benefit biocontrol
Marketing Advantages in Biocontrol and IPM
Food safety is the main driver of IPM in on-farm practices and the key non-price concern in international food retailing4. It provides a strong incentive for the adoption of IPM and biocontrol particularly in the protected cropping industry. There are market benefits to be had. The European wholesaling conglomerate, The Greenery, the largest producer group in Europe with 1,500 Dutch producers and more than 1,000 suppliers overseas, recognised the marketing advantages of embracing IPM and GLOBALGAP5 in their business.

The Greenery label guarantees food-safety as its highest priority. To be marketed under the The Greenery label, fresh produce must meet the minimum requirements of the national MRL6 of the country of destination, contain no traces of illegal compounds, and meet minimum GLOBALGAP standards. Failure to comply means rejection of produce. To achieve this The Greenery encourages IPM practices. Extensive pesticide residue analysis is conducted by The Greenery and its suppliers as the basis for produce acceptance. Major retail clients include the UK supermarkets TESCO and SAINSBURYS.

However, the different specific non-regulatory demands of retailers can be a problem, for example, the German supermarket ALDI has set a maximum number of active compounds per product group, a maximum of 80% of the sum of MRLs and a maximum of 80% of the sum of the ARfDs7, whereas another German supermarket REWE, has set a maximum of 70% of the MRL per active compound and a maximum ARfD per active compound. The Greenery put in place a program of pesticide reduction during 2007-09, with IPM having a central role in the introduction of greater sustainability and residue reduction amongst cooperating growers.

Any grower who wants to be GLOBALGAP certified, will need to produce according to GAP. While IPM8 is in the GAP guidelines, it is not strongly stated. Currently, there are not very strong initiatives to reduce pesticide usage to levels below the official Maximum Residue Limits.

Pesticide Scandal in Spain
In a recent interview9, Karel Bolckmans confirmed that greenhouse vegetables were still the main market for the biocontrol industry. In both Northern Europe and North America, practically all greenhouse vegetable growers are using biocontrol. However, between 2000 and 2005, the industry stagnated. The market for biocontrol agents was saturated; there were no outstanding new products on the horizon. During that period, Koppert and some other companies such as Syngenta-Bioline tried very hard to open up the market in Southern Europe (Mediterranean), without much success.

Protected cropping existing cheek by jowl with coastal suburbia in Almeria region, Spain.

Capsicums grown in the Almeria region, Spain, were the source of the pesticide scandal in 2006.

Capsicum is the main crop grown in 40,000ha of greenhouses in Almeria region, Spain.

The biocontrol programs of Northern Europe initially introduced there were found to be unsuitable in the extended periods of hotter temperatures and greater pest pressures of this area. Then, in 2005, Koppert launched a new product called Amblyseius swirskii (Swirskii)10, a predatory mite mainly for whitefly control, and this created new possibilities in the Mediterranean and Israel. Interestingly, Swirskii has similar characteristics to the Australian native predatory mite Transeius montdorensis, originally developed by the authors at the Gosford Horticultural Institute and now sold in Australia by the Beneficial Bug Company at Richmond. Besides being a good predator, a new off-plant rearing method has enabled the large numbers needed to be reared cost-effectively, and opened the way for similar mass-rearing methodology to deliver other key predatory mite species into the market place.

Richard GreatRex, field development manager, Syngenta Bioline, UK, Dan Papacek, Bugs for Bugs, Mundubbera and one of the authors,

Marilyn Steiner, checking a Spanish capsicum crop for predators, particularly Swirskii.

It has become clear now how much Swirskii has completely altered the IPM landscape in Southern Europe and Israel, providing greater opportunities for greenhouse vegetable producers, but this wasn’t the reason for the upsurge in the adoption of biocontrol. There was another reason that ‘forced’ the adoption of IPM to greater heights.

In 2006, Greenpeace published a detailed report on the pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables in German supermarkets. In the German supermarket LIDL, produce from the Almeria region in Spain was found to contain residues of an illegal pesticide not permitted for use in the EU. This was the sensational headline, but Greenpeace also found, across supermarkets representing 75% of the German market, that 2% of fruit and vegetable samples contained pesticide residues above the acute reference dose ARfD and residues of three or more pesticides in 44% of samples.

Low technology greenhouses abound in Almeria region, Spain.
Note greenhouses perched on the hillside in the background.

The Spanish press reported that 30% of peppers exported from Spain contained traces initially of the illegal pesticide isophenfos-methyl, and later isocarbophos11, both chemicals imported from China. The residues were not detected at a level that might pose a possible risk to people who consumed the peppers. Nonetheless, some UK and German supermarkets switched to Israeli and Turkish imports, sending shockwaves through the Spanish protected vegetable industry in the Almeria region. Overnight, it triggered a 1,500ha reduction in the area of peppers in Almeria. Fifteen people were arrested in Spain and 4,000kg of illegal pesticide seized. This food scandal quickly caused a turnaround in the mentality of the Spanish growers and authorities, forcing the vast majority of growers to switch to IPM employing biocontrol agents. EU supermarkets demanded ‘residue-free’ produce.

The majority of the Spanish vegetables on which Greenpeace found residues of illegal pesticides were either GLOBALGAP certified or certified under some other quality scheme. This was a shock to European supermarkets. As a result, GLOBALGAP convened a working group to develop stronger IPM guidelines. It will probably be 2009 before they are fully functional and it is anticipated that they will have a considerable impact when released9.

Since the eruption of the pesticide scandal, there has been a dramatic increase in the adoption of biocontrol in pepper crops, the main crop of the region, to 7,000ha. This was in no small part due to Spanish government subsidies available for 50% of the cost of biocontrol purchases through marketing organisations. Koppert, Syngenta-Bioline, Biobest and BCP-Certis are all active in this rapidly expanding market, scrambling to meet the sudden upsurge in demand for biocontrol products. BCP-Certis reported good control in the 2007 season by Swirskii (whitefly predator), Orius laevigatus (thrips predator) and Eretmocerus mundus (whitefly parasitoid), with pest levels remaining low throughout the season, and later pest influxes well-controlled by established populations of biocontrol agents. The Spanish greenhouse industry was ‘forced’ into wholesale adoption of biocontrol as their markets dried up, but the interesting fact is that biocontrol was clearly shown to work on a large scale, in a traditionally pesticide-dependent industry.

Pesticide Scandal in China
Closer to home, China has recently been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Recent melamine-contaminated milk products have occupied the news, but earlier in 2006, the same year that Greenpeace exposed the Spanish pesticide scandal, it was also busy conducting pesticide residue testing of vegetables produced in China. It was reported that some of the vegetables sold in Hong Kong’s leading supermarkets were dangerously high in pesticide residues. The small selection included mostly leafy vegetables and tomatoes that tend to absorb pesticides. More than 70% of tomatoes tested were found to have the banned substance lindane (banned in Australia also) and almost 40% of the samples had a mix of three or more types of pesticides12. In one tomato sample, five different pesticides, including lindane, were detected. Thirty per cent of all samples exceeded international Codex standards13.

Australia is a major trading partner with China. In 2007-08, Australia imported $11 million worth of fresh vegetables, mainly garlic and snow peas, and $35 million worth of frozen vegetables, mainly mixed vegetables, beans, peas, spinach and sweet corn14. If fresh tomatoes containing these pesticide levels found their way into this country, aside from consumer health concerns, they could have the potential to seriously damage the reputation of fresh tomatoes produced here. Currently 40% of fresh tomatoes are produced hydroponically in Australia, with the remainder field grown. This is speculative fear, but in an open market economy presently there is nothing to prevent Chinese tomatoes from entering Australia if wholesale markets determined a need to outsource produce from overseas, or if China were to become proactive in seeking entry for its produce into Australia.

In 2006, the Australian consumer journal Choice15 published an article on pesticide use in fruit and vegetables in this country. It reported that all foods sold in Australia must comply with the Food Standards Code, which defines MRLs for pesticide uses. It posed the question; “Can we be sure that our food complies with the regulations?” To examine this question, we obtained NSW data for one of the key commodities of the protected cropping industry, cucumbers. Cucumbers are almost exclusively greenhouse-produced in Australia. These data were provided to the authors by the Australian Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries, which administers the nationwide FRESH TEST program. Between 2002-2007, violations where the MRL was exceeded or an unregistered chemical was detected, ranged from 2.59-11.9%, averaging 7.3% per annum16. Of course, there can be reasonable explanations for the higher levels, such as periods when seasonal conditions favoured insect pests and/or diseases that required greater frequency of pesticide application. This can bring with it the risk of mistakes being made. However, since 2005 it is encouraging to note that the percentage of violations has declined. While produce imported from countries such as China, known to have a less stringent approach than Australia to the use of agricultural chemicals, is a concern, clearly there is room for improvement by Australian greenhouse growers as well.

Results of pesticide residue testing of cucumbers from the NSW Freshtest Program. Violations are either exceeded MRLs or illegal use of pesticide.

Results of pesticide residue testing of cucumbers from the NSW Freshtest Program. Violations are either exceeded MRLs or illegal use of pesticide.

Marketing IPM in Australia
Are there any ‘forcing’ issues that might benefit the adoption of biocontrol in Australia, besides the obvious one of a scandal involving pesticide residues? The best opportunity to make greenhouse and hydroponic producers ‘want’ to accept biocontrol as an essential business decision is through the marketing of an IPM Brand. This will require the current strengthening of the IPM guidelines in GLOBALGAP, due out in 2009, to be taken up by local quality assurance schemes. It is hoped that the revised IPM guidelines will make it compulsory for biocontrol to be adopted as the preferred pest management tactic in an IPM strategy.

While GLOBALGAP is the internationally recognised standard, in Australia FRESHCARE is the on-farm food safety program that provides independent verification for an enterprise seeking certification. A concise account of the development in, and present state of, on-farm assurance schemes in Australia was presented at the 2007 national conference of the Australian hydroponic and greenhouse industry.4 Apparently, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is in the process of introducing Primary Production and Processing (PPP) Standards, although to date none has been introduced for horticulture. If this does come about, it should also contain strong statements about biocontrol and IPM, and not simply ‘encourage’ growers. If PPP and FRESHCARE enforce biocontrol in IPM then the development of a ‘Green Marketing Strategy’ is a strong possibility.

Australian Biocontrol in the Protected Cropping Industry
Positive stimulus in IPM will be just the thing that the biocontrol industry has been looking for. Increased demand for biocontrol agents will improve the economic viability of an industry that struggles to catch up with overseas developments, not just in the range of biocontrol products, but also in the technology used in packaging and crop distribution. Over the past 5 years there has been unprecedented investment in large-scale, modern greenhouse technology in Australia. The largest completed development is 20 ha, with two other projects of 26 and 33 ha, underway. This is bringing significant new interest in biologically based IPM. Biological Services, an insectary based in Loxton, SA, has taken the lead in the development of its product range, expanded production capacity and introduction of business efficiencies in mass rearing, packaging and crop delivery systems for growers. It is hoped that this will lead to the production of a complete range of biocontrol agents in the near future. Significant progress has been made in delivery systems for biocontrol agents overseas, which was imperative for today’s large operations. It is heartening to note that the Protected Cropping Advisory Group to the industry R&D funding body, Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL), has new biocontrol agents as its second R&D priority.

The authors wish to thank Jennifer Lewis, BCP-Certis; Karel Bolckmans, Koppert Biological Systems; Richard GreatRex, Syngenta-Bioline; Martin Clark, EO, Australian Chamber of Fruit & Vegetable Industries; Ian James, private consultant economist to Ausveg; and Alan Norden, Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority, for providing information that assisted this article. Google Earth is thanked for the image of the Spanish greenhouse industry.

About the authors
Since their retirement from NSW DPI, Marilyn Steiner and Stephen Goodwin have established a new business on Mangrove Mountain on the NSW Central Coast. Biocontrol Solutions is a consulting company in the area of IPM in protected crops, particularly in the development and use of biocontrol agents. Marilyn and Stephen between them have over 50 years’ experience. Email:

1. Good Agricultural Practices are “practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products” (FAO COAG 2003 GAP paper). The scope of these four pillars varies widely.

2. Gillespie, D. 2002. Biological and integrated control in vegetables in British Columbia: The challenge of success. Bull. IOBC/WPRS 25(1): 73 – 76.

3. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, Issue 45, 1999: Greenhouse IPM – Around the World, pp. 58-63.

4. Ekman, J. 2007. Risky business – managing on-farm assurance. Proc. Moraitis Hydroponics 2007 Australian Hydroponic and Greenhouse Industry National Conference, pp.101 – 103.

5. GLOBALGAP (formerly known as EUREPGAP formed in 1997), announced in September 2007, is the key reference for GAP in the global market place. It is a pre-farm gate standard that translates consumer requirements into agricultural production practices.

6. MRL – Maximum Residue Limit is the maximum concentration of pesticide residue legally permitted in or on food commodities. MRLs are established for specific pesticide/crop combinations.

7. ARfD – Acute Reference Dose is the amount of a chemical that can be consumed in a single meal without causing harm. In the UK, it is usually set 100 times lower than the acute No Observed Effect Level (NOEL) established from laboratory tests.

8. The concepts of GAP, Good Farming Practice and Good Plant Protection Practice are used interchangeably. These may include Integrated Farming Systems, Integrated Crop Management and IPM, but the EU has no common definition with minimum standards, causing some confusion. In 2006, an EU-wide definition of IPM was proposed and that from 2014 all farms shall comply with the general principles of IPM as a minimum. The proposed definition of IPM following that of the FAO is: “Careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep plant protection products and other forms of intervention to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimise risks to human health and the environment. Integrated pest management emphasises the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to ago-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.” Integrated Crop management is a similar concept to IPM, but adopts a more holistic approach as the name suggests (i.e. it is not just about pests).

9. Biocontrol Files, Issue 13, March 2008.

10. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, Issue 93, 2007: A New Star is Born, pp. 22-28.

11. Jennifer Lewis, BCP-Certis, pers.comm.

12. Patton, D. Greenpeace raises alert over pesticides in Giangzhou fresh produce. AP-Foodtechnology, 20 June 2006.

13. Patton, D. Pesticide residues still high in Chinese vegetables. AP-Foodtechnology, 25 April 2006.

14. Ian James, consulting economist, pers. comm.

15. Pesticides in Fruit and Veg. Choice, April 2006, pp. 25-27.

16. Martin Clark, Australian Chamber of Fruit & Vegetable Industries, pers. comm