"Our bumble bees are flying doctors that take preventative treatments to strawberry plants in order to make them resistant to fungal infections."
Herman Van Mellaert, Business Development Director
At the beginning of 1987, Biobest was founded as an initiative by a vet in Westerlo. Doctor De Jonghe was passionate about bees and was convinced that these animals would be great dispersal instruments for tomato crops grown under glass. This approach would lead to better dispersal, improved fruit and increased yields. Twenty-five years later, he was the pioneer in terms of commercial bee production. Nowadays, bees for dispersal are an international, much sought-after product. For the first time, insects were regarded as comrades in food production, and this was a complete U-turn. Dr. De Jonghe initially received a great deal of support from Flemish tomato growers and rapidly found success abroad.
The first focus area for Biobest was, therefore, 'dispersal'. Insects, however, cannot really be combined with pesticides so the second focus area of 'organic pesticides' was never far off. After three years, different types of ichneumon wasp and mites were being produced to tackle all types of pest; ladybirds were also being used against aphids. Biobest also produces useful nematodes and bio-pesticides that are based on micro-organisms.
Nowadays, Biobest produces 40 types of insect for various uses. 33% of turnover comes from dispersal solutions and 66% from combating pests.
"The solutions provided by Biobest have become more relevant over the past decade against a backdrop of increasingly strict norms with respect to food safety, health, sustainability and also the phenomenon of pest resistance."
Worldwide, Biobest has 400 technical and commercial employees who work with growers on finding the most balanced and sustainable initiatives. Their products are also distributed by third parties in sixty different countries.
The actual innovation challenge is not in the reproduction and use of new insects. Biology demands a better thought-out approach than just 'spraying pesticides'. There is not simply an insect that can be plucked from nature to tackle each and every pest. They are thinking in terms of integrated ecosystems to protect different varieties.
"Our people are working very intensively with the bugs. Innovation is extremely important to us."
That is why we have a very extensive R&D department. Biobest has outgrown the traditional set-up. Organic crop protection has gained a scale and seriousness which means you have to behave like a high-tech company. "In the first instance, we are aware of problems for which organic solutions are required. We are keeping our finger on the pulse. R&D people examine what is known about a particular pest and any natural enemies." But that is only the beginning. Biobest works with living organisms that are used within an ecosystem. So, it is also all about how you use, distribute, feed, control and integrate the micro-organisms and insects with other varieties. "You are providing all-in solutions. R&D is also all about how you can produce these varieties on an industrial scale and keep them in stock so you can always supply them."
A great example which illustrates the complexity is mites. These are very small arthropods that are often a tenth of a millimetre long, e.g. the house-dust mite. Mites live on pests. Pests must be present for mites to survive and flourish in a glasshouse. One of the applications is therefore the controlled use of pollen to enable an army of mites to be permanently ready and waiting when pests become a problem. "Our market encompasses organic growers but most of our turnover comes from 'integrated growers'. They work on the basis of a pragmatic rather than dogmatic approach. In reality, this means that they do not (yet) rule out chemical controls entirely. They work organically as much as possible but, if there really is no alternative, they use conventional products."
A recent development that springs to mind is the 'flying doctors', i.e. bees that fly in remedies to the fruit of the crop. They place a door in the bee’s nest with powder that is taken, by the bees, into the glasshouse. The powder is an organic pesticide against botrytis, better known as grey mildew. Botrytis is a stubborn pest in strawberry cultivation. The bees land on the strawberry plant flowers and treat them with spores from a non-damaging mildew. So, in fact, it is the non-damaging mildew that takes over the fruit and that inhibits the spread of the damaging mildew.
"The 'flying doctors' are an organic alternative to a chemical pesticide that is often used 10 to 15 times per year for strawberry plants."
"It is a product that we are extremely proud of because it illustrates exactly what we are working towards. We are not only creating a market, but are also taking up market-share by replacing conventional treatments with organic solutions. There is still a huge unexplored area of uses in the open air and public spaces. We are not necessarily thinking in terms of the agricultural industry, such as soy, but rather about fruit and berry cultivation. We are also gaining ground within floriculture. We are luckily operating in a market which still offers us masses of growth."
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