Sustainable and circular bioeconomy for food systems transformation

Bioeconomy Talks: Biopesticides with Buyung Hadi


The Bioeconomy Talks series features interviews with experts on bioeconomy themes that are directly linked to agrifood systems transformation

Buyung Hadi is an entomologist, ecologist and integrated pest management specialist who coordinates the Secretariat of FAO’s Global Action for Fall Armyworm (FAW) Control. The FAW is a moth native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas that has now spread to Africa, the Near East and Asia-Pacific, recently reaching as far as New Zealand. It can feed on over 80 species of crops.

The FAO Bioeconomy team sat down with Buyung to discuss the role biopesticides have to play in the management of major crop pests and diseases, in particular FAW.

First things first, Buyung – can you explain what biopesticides are and how they are different from chemical pesticides?

Sure, though the question is actually a lot simpler than the answer! In the first instance, biopesticides include biochemicals derived from natural resources, such as semiochemicals – pheromones for example, which are secreted by living organisms – and botanicals or plant-based extracts. Both semiochemicals and botanicals are naturally occurring, as opposed to conventional pesticides. All of them are intended to kill or interfere with the behaviours of plant pests and pathogens, thereby reducing crop damage.

Added to the above you have the likes of microbials, such as fungi or bacteria, which most countries would also classify as biopesticides. In many cases, microbial biopesticides actually contain living fungi or bacteria. As living organisms, they affect specific pests or pathogens, and this is great! Indeed, due to their specificity and limited field persistence, biopesticides are generally seen as safer compared to conventional pesticides.

Where it gets a little tricky is when you begin to create formulas by extracting biochemicals from microbials – depending on the formula, this may result in a product with a relatively high level of toxicity, in which case can it still be considered generally safe for humans and the environment? There are also differing views on how to classify the likes of plant-incorporated-protectants, which include genetically modified maize that expresses Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins.

So there is no universally accepted definition of the term “biopesticide”?

There is a general consensus that biopesticides should be derived from natural sources, but the details of what can be registered as a biopesticide and the registration procedures vary by country. In many countries, the registration process for biopesticides is based on the process for synthetic chemical pesticides, even though we are talking about products that are not always comparable. For instance, in the registration process for a living organism such as a fungus, it makes no sense to ask about its molecular weight!

What are other major challenges for biopesticides?

Other challenges include production and distribution issues – such as the need for cold storage for many types of biopesticides – which lead to lack of availability and affordability of biopesticides at the kiosk level, whereas chemical pesticides are easily found; and lack of understanding of how to apply biopesticides, which are often considered more knowledge intensive.

Given the challenges, are biopesticides worth the effort?

Absolutely! Many biopesticides have been scientifically demonstrated to be just as effective as chemical pesticides, but with the added benefit of being much safer for human and environmental health. Again, I am not referring to all products that can be registered as biopesticides, as there is a range of efficacy and toxicity, but we have lots of examples of biopesticides with clear benefits both for yield and the environment.

Can you give specific examples in relation to FAW?

Since the Global Action for FAW Control was launched in 2019, we have been working with partners and countries to gather evidence-based information on which pest management measures work best to combat FAW. To give two examples, we’re finding that both nuclear polyhedrosis virus (NPV)-based biopesticides and neem, a plant native to much of South Asia, are highly effective at controlling FAW. And the good news is that neither is harmful to humans or much of the environment.

This is hugely encouraging, because we have a responsibility to come up with solutions that protect food security and human health today while safeguarding a thriving natural resource base for tomorrow. This is part of the commitment FAO has as a UN agency looking to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 2 – Zero Hunger, and leading initiatives such as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Still, as previously mentioned, there are practical challenges associated with biopesticides – for instance, microbial and botanical pesticides can break down quickly when exposed to sunlight, so it’s important that farmers know when to spray for maximum effect. This illustrates why biopesticides are sometimes referred to as knowledge intensive, though I would argue that traditional chemical pesticides are just as knowledge intensive – they may be easy to spray, but many farmers are lacking vital information around their proper use, including how to protect themselves and the environment when spraying.

So how can FAO work to fill the knowledge gaps around biopesticides and help drive their uptake?

As the lead UN agency working on development issues in food and agriculture, FAO has an important role to play in supporting governments and policymakers in facilitating the mainstreaming of biopesticides that are truly safe for humans and the environment. Also, as a neutral broker, FAO can offer a safe space to discuss potentially controversial topics such as the use of ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which some countries can classify as biopesticides. Further, FAO has to continue disseminating science-based knowledge on the adverse effects of chemical pesticides, such as the well-established link between excessive and improper chemical pesticide use and pollinator decline.

Finally, where do you see biopesticides going in the next few years?

Hopefully to a kiosk near you! But first we need to support countries in developing registration processes that are fit for purpose, production at scale, adequate storage and distribution channels, and knowledge at farm level.

Within the framework of a sustainable bioeconomy, the food security, human health and environmental benefits of biopesticides are potentially huge, and not just for managing FAW but also other major plant pests and diseases.


Photo: Buyung Hadi (Courtesy of Buyung Hadi)


FAO Sustainable and Circular Bioeconomy

FAO Global Action for Fall Armyworm Control

How to mainstream sustainability and circularity into the bioeconomy? A compendium of bioeconomy good practices and policies.