“Mighty Mites” for natural crop protection

Promip

Crop protection using biological controls – employing predatory insects, viruses or fungi to attack any pests responsible for lower farming yields – is a decades-old strategy well known around the world and in Brazil.

A recent count showed around 70 bio-control companies are active in Brazil, offering farmers access to at least 12 macro-organisms (wasps, mites and even ladybirds) and a number of micro-organisms (fungi, bacteria or viruses).

Nevertheless biological controls have often been presented to farmers as an “either, or” solution. They’re recognized as a viable alternative to chemical pesticides for high-value, small-scale agriculture or for organic farmers.

Mites can protect pepper crops (foto SFB)

Mites can protect high-value pepper crops (foto SFB)

But for large-scale major agricultural and agribusiness that in the last 20 years have transformed Brazil into a major food commodity exporter, chemical pesticides have been the preferred route – aided by light-touch regulation. Over the last 12 years, use of agro-chemical in Brazil grew by 172%, compared to 90% in the rest of the world.

This could be about to change, thanks to an emerging ecosystem of biological control companies in the agricultural heartlands of São Paulo state – several of which emerged from an incubator at the University of São Paulo’s Advanced Agriculture School (ESALQ). One even made it to Fast Company’s list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies.

Promip Manejo Integrado de Pragas, a business from Engenheiro Coelho co-founded in 2006 by entomologist Marcelo Porletti, is seeking a “middle way” in which biological controls gain acceptance not only among market gardeners and smaller-scale growers of high value produce like strawberries, tomatoes or flowers – but also with large-scale conventional farmers who will integrate their use alongside conventional pesticides and fungicides.

Promip now has 100 employees and by 2016 its annual sales had grown to R$10 million – 8% of which goes on R&D. As well as developing and selling its own products, the company has a research station where it develops biological crop protection solutions for companies. Promip is also experimenting with novel delivery systems such as aerial drones.

“Our goal is to increase production and efficiency while maintaining a more sustainable and rational approach to crop management. Our idea is integration of biological controls with chemical solutions,” Porletti told an interviewer.

Promip got its start in the ESALQ incubator. But, just like the insects it breeds, it emerged from this cocoon thanks to a 2006 PIPE research grant – the first of six – from FAPESP. “I’ve no doubt that FAPESP’s support contributed significantly to our scientific development,” said Poletti. “This helped us to invest more in technology and was fundamental to our development.”

Like other São Paulo state start-ups, Promip prides itself on its DNA based on research and development, which has led to innovation in a growing marketplace. The prize is certainly great: estimates from 2010 showed sales of biological controls were just 3% of the total now being spent on traditional pesticides.

Promip began by focusing on the use of predatory mites able to attack pests commonly found in market gardens, fruit orchards and where flowers are grown for cutting.

Three species of tiny predatory mites are  sold. Two of these species, Phytoseiulus macropilis and Neoseiulus californicus, control another type of mite, the two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae), which causes damage to vegetables, fruits, flowers and other cultivated plants. The third species, Stratiolaelaps scimitus, is used as a control agent for the fungus gnat (Bradysia matogrossensis), an insect that feeds on mushrooms, and it attacks the roots of several crops, mainly during seedling formation. “We produce about 100 million individuals of these three species per month in our biofactory,” Poletti notes. “They are sold to growers and resellers.”

In addition to mites, Promip has developed technologies for breeding and distributing predatory wasps for large-scale agriculture – especially sugar cane plantations which are often devastated by larvae of the Sugarcane Borer moth (Diatraea saccaralis). Like Bug Agentes Biológicos (another São Paulo startup and the winner of the Fast Company award), Promip is a specialist in the rapid breeding of the Trichogramma galloi wasp attacking eggs of the Borer.

There’s also huge potential for biological controls in Brazil’s soybean growing industry – already the world’s largest and still growing fast. Already some 8% of planted acreage is being treated with biological solutions. The main threat to crops is Sclerotinia sclerotiorum or ‘cottony soft rot’– a highly successful plant pathogen causing white mould. This is treated using another fungicidal fungus named Trichoderma harzianum.

Brazil’s soya fields are also affected by a range of stink bugs including Nezara viridula (southern green stink bug), Piezodorus guildinii (small green stink bug) and Euschistus heros (brown stink bug). All three are subject to predation by the Telonomus Podisi egg parasitoid wasp, which can be produced en masse on the laboratory.

Insects, or course, play a vital role in pollinating as well as protecting plants. Because the devastating effect of chemical pesticides on honey bees and other pollinators is so well-known, this creates opportunities for biological control companies in areas where growers simply cannot afford to risk using pesticides that might harm pollinators – but at the same time they need protection against pests.

You can see a (Portuguese-language) video about Promip and its work in both biological controls and  pollination, below.

In Rio Grande do Sul state’s apple orchards, the South American fruit fly causes annual losses of nearly R$30 million. But although using insecticides to protect against crop damage might cost a fraction of this, there’s an even bigger risk caused by the absence of pollinators. “Not having them in the fields can result in a 40% reduction in productivity,” says Promip’s Poletti.

No wonder, then, that Promip is developing a technology for breeding native bees for pollination. They are a stingless species known as mandaguari (Scaptotrigona depilis), which lives in colonies and can pollinate crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and coffee. Pin 2013 Promip received a PIPE phase 2 award for this research.

You can read a detailed article about biological controls by Brazilian journalist Evanildo de Silveira by clicking here. Portuguese readers can find an earlier article about Promip written by Brazilian journalist Yuri Vasconcelos by clicking here.

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