Biological alternatives to chemical pesticides can be used to help deliver comparable wheat yields, according to ground-breaking new research carried out in the North of England.

It has found that the use of so-called ‘bioprotectants’ can reduce the environmental impacts associated with chemicals, and it is hoped that a recent series of trials involving spring and winter wheat varieties could be developed into a viable, widespread solution for growers in the future.

The breakthrough Crop Health North project has been carried out by he Farmer Scientist Network (FSN) – a group supported by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society that brings together farmers and scientists to find scientific and technological solutions to agricultural challenges. Undertaken over three years across field sites at Stockbridge Technology Centre near Selby and Newcastle University’s Nafferton, and Cockle Park Farms, the trials using bioprotectants have been funded through the EU’s European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI).

The trials found that wheat can be produced using biocontrol technologies, alone or in combination with conventional crop chemistry, whilst still obtaining similar yields and grain quality.

Nigel Pulling, chief executive of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, commented: “We all know that the world’s population is increasing rapidly. This is putting farmers under huge pressure to increase yields whilst protecting the environment for future generations, particularly through the use of fewer chemicals.

“To address this challenge head on, we teamed up with Newcastle University and project partners Stockbridge Technology Centre and BioRationale to look at possible solutions. The results have been very encouraging and the hope now is that this research can be built upon so that bioprotectants become a real working solution for growers.”

A series of bans on chemicals have limited farmers’ ‘toolkit’ to combat diseases and pests at a time of increasingly challenging weather patterns.

“We are losing active chemical ingredients to protect crops from pests due to the ‘precautionary principle’ and some crops have now developed a resistance to some chemical treatments, so identifying new opportunities for farmers to help grow profitable wheat crops is really important," stated James Standen, director of farming at Newcastle University.

“We can’t use chemical pesticides in the same way as we have used them in the past. I see this in a similar way to how resistance to antibiotics is challenging health-care systems," added Professor Rob Edwards, chairman of the Farmer Scientist Network.

“These trials are all about using biological agents to control fungal disease and insects. Pesticides won’t always be the first resource for the future. Farming for the environment, that’s exactly what we should be doing, and in terms of sustainability in agriculture, the findings of these trials are massively significant.”

Bioprotectant specialist Dr Roma Gwynn, Director of BioRationale, worked closely with farmers and agronomists to design the trials, having collectively identified an urgent need to explore new, innovative crop-protection products. Bioprotectants are crop-protection products found in nature or derived from it, and so they degrade easily once applied to crops.

During the trials, bioprotectants were applied to spring (Willow and Mulika) and winter (Skyfall, Leeds and Sundance) wheat varieties. Three treatment programmes were used, one using conventional chemical crop protection products, one only using bio-protectants and another involving integrated pest management techniques. The wheat varieties were chosen due to either their susceptibility to diseases or their various resistance ratings.

Dr David George, reader in precision agronomy at Newcastle University, concluded: “The project has quite clearly shown that bioprotectants can perform just as well as synthetic crop protection chemistry, especially in integrated programmes. The next steps forward are to take the management regimes that have performed very well in our studies to date and try and look at how we can optimise their use.”

The project findings can be found via: