Jürgen Köhl:

“The end of BIOCOMES marks a good start”

“The results of four years of BIOCOMES have been better than expected,” says project coordinator Jürgen Köhl of Wageningen University and Research. “This partnership between 14 research institutes and 13 companies has allowed us to have a considerable impact, not only in terms of scientific literature but also, and especially, in terms of the environment.”

An air of scepticism prevailed at the start of the EU-financed BIOCOMES project in 2013 says Köhl, especially among the private sector companies involved. “Some primarily saw public-private partnerships as a source of complexity: after all, they led to companies having to sit around the table with competitors as well as colleagues. Naturally, this meant that solid legal arrangements had to be made in advance. Fortunately, the companies also saw the potential benefits of working together. For instance, six of the biological pesticide producers involved had questions or practical problems they could not solve alone: they all wanted to develop biological plant protection products, but lacked the knowledge or expertise to take that step.”

Limited market
According to Köhl, there are several different success factors within the BIOCOMES partnership. “One of the participating companies had, for instance, developed a virus against the tomato leaf miner Tuta absoluta. On the one hand there is a limited market for such a product, which makes its development a relatively risky proposition economically. At the same time, combatting this pest is frequently a bottleneck for the use of other biological products. Since there are often still no biological alternatives to combatting Tuta, it is also impossible to biologically suppress other pests in tomato cultivation as those biological control agents would be immediately destroyed by a synthetic agent against Tuta. Thanks to the support provided by BIOCOMES, this particular company was able to start an economically viable development and facilitate broad-based biological crop protection in tomato cultivation. Development of this product is sure to continue after BIOCOMES has ended.”

Another success factor according to Köhl is shared expertise. “One of the partners wished to breed nematodes to better combat pests but lacked the molecular expertise. This expertise was, however, available elsewhere within the consortium. The development of these nematodes is now so advanced that the German government is taking over the support of BIOCOMES. Here, too, commercial production is almost certain.”

In addition to this qualitative input, BIOCOMES has also offered pure quantitative capacity, Köhl stresses. “Most of the companies in our consortium are medium-sized or even small. One of the partners wished to develop a fungus to combat Fusarium in grain. They also lacked the capacity for the necessary research and setting up of field tests. BIOCOMES played a decisive role here as well – without the partnership the company could not have gone through with this.”

Impact factor
Overall, Köhl feels that the results of four years of BIOCOMES have been better than expected. “Eleven agents are now in development, with two already on the way to registration. In addition, several new insects will be marketed as biological control agents. It is important to point out that these are all products which may potentially have a major positive impact on the environment and would otherwise not have reached the market. In science, we are used to thinking in terms of the impact factor of scientific journals. But in the end, we all do this work in order to have a positive practical impact on the environment.”

Incidentally, during an international conference in Brazil, Köhl noticed that perhaps the most important outcome of four years of BIOCOMES was something that might be termed ‘process knowledge’. “At this conference there was less interest in the results that would come out of our unique partnership: what they found more exciting was hearing about how we had managed to bring all the parties to the table in a constructive way and to avoid potential conflicts regarding IP rights.”

A good start
All in all, Köhl expects BIOCOMES to ultimately be seen as a good start for further cooperation in the international business of integrated crop protection. “The nature of European funding will not allow for a BIOCOMES 2.0. But I am convinced that, for many project partners, this project is not the end station. With or without funding from national governments, the cooperation will continue on many fronts.”

Source: BIOCOMES (Nora de Rijk)

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