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Biological control: science at the service of sustainability

Embrapa has invested in research on biological pest control since the 1980s. These three decades dedicated to scientific studies have resulted in solid expertise that involves about 30 Embrapa units in several Brazilian regions and more than 130 research projects.

The basic premise of biological control is to control agricultural pests and disease-transmitting insects through the use of their natural enemies, which can be other beneficial insects, predators, parasitoids, and microorganisms such as fungi, virus, and bacteria.

It is a rational and healthy method that aims at making use of such natural enemies, which do not leave traces in food and are harmless to the environment and to the population's health.

In this manner, agricultural research hopes to contribute to reducing the use of chemical pesticides in integrated pest management, collaborating to improving the quality of agricultural products, reducing environmental pollution, conserving natural resources, and to the sustainability of agroecosystems.

Biological control trends in Brazil and in the world

If, on the one hand, Brazil celebrates the fact that it is a world leader in the agribusiness sector, on the other hand, this leadership entails an increasing dependence of imported inputs, including synthetic agrochemicals, imposing on the country the sad predicament of also being a world leader in the consumption of these products. In accordance with the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), Brazil is responsible for 1/5 of the world consumption of agrochemicals, using 19% of the agrochemicals produced in the world. 

Approximately 2.5 million tons of agrochemicals are annually used in the world. In Brazil, annual consumption has surpasses 300,000 tons. In the last forty years, there has been a 700% increase in the consumption of agrochemicals while the agricultural area increased 78% in the same period. 

Agrochemicals have been more used in Brazilian farming than ever. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the use of chemical products to control pests, diseases, and weeds has more than doubled in ten years. Between 2002 and 2012, the trade of agrochemicals in the country has climbed from nearly three kilos per hectare to seven kilos per hectare. A 155% increase. In addition to the increase in the use of agrochemicals on food, IBGE has also assessed the different types of synthetic agrochemicals sprayed on the crop fields. About 30% of the agrochemicals were classified as very dangerous.

The figures on the consumption of agrochemicals in Brazil are impressive, and, admittedly, the intensive use of synthetic agrochemicals in agriculture causes several problems, including food, soil, water, and animal contamination; poisoning of farm workers; pests growing resistance to active principles; intensification of the occurrence of iatrogenic diseases; biological unbalance, with changes to nutrient cycling and organic matter; elimination of beneficial organisms; and reduction in biodiversity.

Such data concern different segments of society and have led to increasing demand for alternatives to meet environmental restrictions and consumer requirements. Biological control, within integrated pest management, is one of the viable options to meet society's constant search for sustainable solutions.

In 2009, the European Community had a legislative package for and effective adoption of Integrated Pest Management approved, which generated demand for the sustainable use of agrochemicals and offered opportunities for higher insertion of biological control agents. Actions of this nature are occurring in the Brazilian legislative, such as the Senate Bill no. 679 of 2011 (Art. 21st), which created the National Policy to Support to Natural Pesticides, and decree no. 7794, from August 20, 2012, which instituted the National Policy on Agroecology and Organic Production.

Natural biological control in all world ecosystems is estimated at 85.5 million km2; meanwhile, classic biological control, which uses exotic natural enemies to control pests is estimated to be used in 3.5 million km2 (10% of the cultivated land). Augmentative biological control, which involves the release of natural (native or exotic) enemies that are produced on a large scale to control pests and diseases, is being applied in 0.16 million km2 (0.4% of the cultivated land).

In Brazil, in 2010, the market for biological control products totalled approximately US$ 70 million, which is equivalent to 2% of the sales in the synthetic agrochemical market. It is estimated that the area treated with biological control agents in Brazil is slightly smaller than 8 million hectares/year. Although it is large in absolute terms, the percentage participation is still modest in the crops for which there are biological alternatives available.

The current profile of the biological control agent industry mostly includes medium and small specialized businesses, a few of which have been established more than 10 years ago. Despite the prevalence of small and medium companies, large companies, which have been traditional leaders in the synthetic agrochemical market, are acquiring or reactivating divisions related to the development of biopesticides, in view of business perspectives in the Brazilian market.

In light of this positive scenario, research on biological control represents an opportunity for innovation and competitiveness in Brazilian agriculture and contributes to environmental perspectives and to the sustainable use of environmental services. With this increasing market, which should grow two- or three-fold worldwide in next the 10 years, it is likely that the demand to improve processes related to biological control will also increase, generating opportunities for research and partnerships for innovation in this field.

Biological control at Embrapa

Embrapa is one of the protagonists in the area of biological control in Brazil, having generated many basic research results in the last three decades through about 30 of its research units in the entire domestic territory. However, few technological solutions have effectively reached Brazilian farmers.

That is why it is the corporation's priority today to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technologies generated in the area of biological control to the production sector, through internal or external synergetic networks with national and international science and technology institutions, in public-private partnerships, which can effectively contribute to broadening the use of biological control agents, reducing the use of synthetic agrochemicals.

One of Embrapa's actions in that sense was the establishment of the Corporate Biological Control Portfolio in 2013. The aim is to optimize the activities related to the area and have research results reach the production sector more quickly.

The Portfolio intends to organize research activities within Embrapa, integrating professionals, resources, services, infrastructure, and partners, in order to enhance research on biological control in Brazil and consolidate Embrapa's protagonism in the production sector.

Parallely, market projections point to a positive scenario of booming of biological products aimed at biological pest control, with prospects of doubling or tripling their volume in the next 10 years at a global scale. This means that research in the area of biological control represents an opportunity for innovation and competitiveness in Brazilian agriculture and opportunities for partnerships aimed at innovation.

In order to ensure the quality of the basic knowledge generated in the area of biological control, as Embrapa prioritizes technology transfer to Brazilian farmers, it works today in the following fronts:

- Implementation of biological control in the scope of integrated pest management.

- Use of crop management and soil management techniques that favor the action of introduced or naturally occurring biological control agents (beneficial insects, predators, parasitoids, and microorganisms, such as fungi, virus, and bacteria with pathogenic potential on insect pests).

- Training of professionals to develop and use biological control and to establish a culture of use of this technology.

- Participation in the elaboration of public policies to encourage the use of biological control agents, on research regulation, or on the development and registration of products based on biological control agents.

- Incentives for the establishment of incubated companies for the development of such agents.

- Development of biological products jointly with the private sector.

Main challenges:

- Eliminating the factors constraining the expansion of biological control

Breaking paradigms in the use of biological control

- Speediness in exploring biological control agents (either under development or in collections with such potential) at Embrapa. 


Biological Control encompasses five strands: biodiversity, biological control agent performance strategies, integration with crop protection activities, and impacts of the use of these agents and their adoption in the production sector.

1) Biodiversity – prospection, knowledge, conservation and appraisal (range of activity, biogeography, seconday metabolites, genetic variability) of native and exotic biological control agents, so as to constitute technological asset banks.

2) Strategies to increment the performance of native and exotic biological control agents  - strategic selection; bioecology analyses based on the ecological characteristic required for the satisfactory persistence of their effect on the fields (high tolerance to high or low temperatures, resistance to drought, UV radiation, etc.); definition of vulnerable stages in the life cycle of of target pests with the purpose of magnifying the possibilities of use of these agents; production methodologies on a large scale; formularization and evaluation of its efficiency in relation to the insect-target.

3) Integration with crop protection strategies - stimulating management techniques that facilitate the action of introduced and naturally occurring agents.

4) Impacts of the use of biological control agents – avaliar os impactos ambientais, sociais e econômicos do uso de agentes de controle biológico, com base na sua especificidade e persistência (monitoramento da dinâmica populacional desses agentes antes e após liberação a campo).

5) Strategies to increment the adoption of biological control agents  - training professionals to develop and use biological control, and definition of methodologies for technology transfer to the production sector, including coops and family farming businesses.

Lines of Research, Development and Innovation

Biological control research at Embrapa today comprises the following areas:

- Prospection and introduction of native or exotic biological control agents.

- Establishment and maintenance of technological assets banks related to natural enemies.

- Development of diagnostic kits for the identification of pests and their natural enemies, in order to inform decisions on the correct management of the target pest.

- Assessment of the influence of environmental factors on potential biological control agents and on the interaction with the target host.

- Assessment of the risk posed by the use of such agents, focusing on non-target organisms.

- Training professionals to develop and use biological control and to set up a culture of use of this technology.

- Development of methodologies to produce of biological control agents on a large scale.

- Development of methodologies for the formulation of biological control agents, focusing on increasing their potential persistence over target insects.

- Development of methodologies to assess the quality of products based on biological control agents.

- Development of processes for the integration of these agents with other pest management tools.

- Agroecosystem management to promote pest regulation services.

- Innovative strategies for the propagation of biological control agents.

- Development of databases, strategies, models and geotechnologies for the characterization and monitoring of the agents in agricultural and natural environments.

- Development of methodologies for the assessment of environmental, social, and economic impacts.

- Development of techniques to monitor the presence of pests and natural enemies to determine the appropriate moment biological control agents should be used.

- Development of methodologies to assess the agronomic effectiveness of potential biological control agents.

- Databases to inform regulatory bodies on the use of biological control agents, considering safety concerns, patents, environmental risks, and interactions, among other factors.

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