How biologicals can win where GMs didn't

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Aphea.Bio has so far launched two products: a biostimulant seed treatment for wheat and a maize biostimulant. Image: Getty/Roelof Bos
Image: Aphea.Bio has so far launched two products: a biostimulant seed treatment for wheat and a maize biostimulant. Image: Getty/Roelof Bos

Related tags biostimulants fertiliser crop health soil health

Aphea.Bio’s recently appointed chairman Hadyn Parry predicts ‘huge’ growth for biostimulants and biofungicides. These are typically GM-free of course, but the market is well-placed to avoid the mistakes of the past, he tells AgTechNavigator.

Parry brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the Belgium-based agricultural technology company, having served in several leadership roles throughout his career in the biotechnology sector.

He was CEO of biotech firm Oxitec, where he played a pivotal role in developing revolutionary insect control solutions in both agriculture and public health. He was chair both at indoor farming technology provider LettUs Grow and MOA Technology, which makes herbicides.

He is now tasked with providing strategic guidance and leadership to Aphea.Bio, ensuring the company continues to drive innovation, expand its product portfolio, and enhance its market presence.

Located in Gent, Belgium Aphea.Bio is making a new wave of biostimulants and biofungicides based on naturally occurring micro-organisms with the aim of contributing to a sustainable and resilient agricultural system amid challenges such climate change, food insecurity and biodiversity loss.

Hadyn Parry_light grey
Microbial biostimulants ‘tick all the boxes’, says Aphea.Bio’s new chairman Hadyn Parry

The Ghent University spinout has a research and development platform that develops novel solutions using microbes to help maize and wheat farmers reduce their use of fertiliser and pesticides without compromising on crop yield.

It works with two kinds of microbial strains: biostimulants, which increase the amount of nutrients plants can absorb; and biocontrols, which protect crops against disease.

It believes there is fertile ground in the untapped microbial space to develop efficacious biological solutions to help complement or replace products in the major chemical indications.

Aphea has so far launched two products: a biostimulant seed treatment for wheat and a maize biostimulant. It is in the process of submitting a biofungicide — which controls the fungi and bacteria that affect plants — for regulatory approval in the US and Europe. In the longer term, Aphea expects to launch one product a year for the next 10 years and release biological crop protection products in a whole range of crops.

Microbial biostimulants and biofungicides 'tick all boxes', Parry said. “They can play a huge part in not only increasing food quantity but food quality and at the same time reduce our dependency on chemicals or other additives you would put on the crop. It's good for plants, good for the environment. That's why I think it's so exciting.”

The benefits of biologicals over other sectors

He told us how the trajectory of the biologicals sector compares to other categories, firstly the GM crop sector in Europe, which has been mired in controversy since the 90s. “If you take the GM crop piece – that was all driven by multinationals, huge research costs, and a lot of intellectual property. I think industry overclaimed and was very defensive in the way it communicated. So that ended up in a topsy turvy world where we don't grow GM crops in Europe. But GM crops were oversold and were badly handled by media, industry and politicians.” 

The biologicals sector, in contrast, is not being oversold, Parry believes, and is largely driven by small companies and innovative research. “I think the bigger companies have looked, watched and waited and you're seeing them invest over time… I think people are taking this market sensibly step-by-step and with an understanding what the products are.”

The sector is also free of the scaling issues that hamper insect protein. “You can produce good levels of protein at small levels from theese insect production plants,” he explained. “But as you scale up you get incredible costs of capital required to scale up your facility to produce the amount of protein you need.” On top of a lack of regulatory framework for insect protein production, this issue is hindering investment, he said.

Neither does the category contend with cost issues that have affected other areas he’s worked in. “I've also been involved in the use of pheromones use in mating disruption,” he revealed. “This was also very exciting. But when the pheromones were all produced in a synthetic method, they were very expensive. So, you had a proven technology that really restricted in use because it was so expensive.”

One size doesn’t fit all

Probably the biggest issue in the biologicals sector, however, is that they can’t be used by farmers in all circumstances. “I can't produce a product and say this is what it does, and it works the same from Poland to Spain to Italy to US. You do really have to match the product to the local farming environment and to the regime that the farmer is doing.”

Products therefore come with high service levels and need to be tailored to fit a farmer’s particular needs. The farmers also need education to understand how the products can help them.

In order to grow, therefore, Parry says the biologicals sector collectively needs to follow the science. “It's a sector with massive potential, but there's no one size fits all and what is really important for companies like Aphea is to focus on the science to make sure we end up with very good products with proprietary intellectual property, that the products themselves have clear claims; and good service levels at the farmer level. 

“We need a good level of understanding about what these products can do; how they can help production; how they can help the environment; and that's what Aphea is all about. We are trying to lead the next generation of biologicals: better products, more consistent, better understood and better for the environment with clear benefit for farmers.”

The link between biologicals and more choice in supermarkets

Biologicals hope to build soil fertility and provide crop nutrition and protection. However, if farmers can generate better yield and quality, this might trigger a shift to diversify food production, Parry hopes.

“I think that we are beginning to see a greater consciousness around the diversity and differentiation of what is actually produced,” he explained.

Cereals, he lamented, are too often produced as cheaply as possible. The value add comes in the processing, not the production. “I think it’s really important that we begin to build a much stronger public consciousness about differentiation and diversity in the food that leaves the farm. I'd like to see more specialty grains. I'd like to see a much greater understanding of product variety in the supermarkets. So instead of buying tomatoes, you buy Piccolo tomatoes because you want a particular attribute. If you can diversify and differentiate at the farm gate you can move value from the processing of food to the production of food. I think that's what we all want to see.”

This desire to see greater differentiation and diversity in agriculture is a personal one, Parry stressed. But Aphea is a company that can “very much help in that process through the product range it has and is bringing forward”, he believes.  

“I'd like to move away from this monolithic vision of agriculture of farmers all producing the same product; a small number of agrochemical companies supplying crop protection; a small number of fertilser companies producing the fertiliser; and a small number of supermarkets selling processed food. I think we need to go the other way and diversify.

“Biostimulants and biofungicides allow you to look at food quality, food production, reduce yield, reduce costs across a whole range of crops. So I think we can help back up that trend.”

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