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When the tech pipeline plugs

Fifteen years later grasshopper bio-pesticide still not commercially available.

WESTERN PRODUCER — The first paragraph of a Western Producer article from Feb. 8, 2007, was a good one: “Researchers are jumping for joy over a promising new grasshopper bio-pesticide.”

The story went on to say that Dan Johnson, an environmental science professor at the University of Lethbridge, had discovered a soil fungus that controls grasshoppers.

At the 2007 Crop Production Show in Saskatoon, Johnson explained that the bio-pesticide killed 78 to 100 percent of grasshoppers, nine days after treatment.

People at the show were impressed.

“It is probably the most promising bio-pesticide that I have encountered in my career,” said Eric Johnson, a former researcher with Agriculture Canada in Saskatoon.

At the time, Dan Johnson said there would be two more years of research followed by a year of animal and environmental safety testing on the soil fungus before the bio-pesticide hit the market.

That was more than 15 years ago.

The highly effective bio-pesticide, which reduced grasshopper density by 83 percent in tests done on lentil fields in Saskatchewan and suppressed grasshoppers near the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Cold Lake, Alta., is still not on the market.

If Canada’s track record of commercializing bio-pesticides is a predictor of the future, it’s unlikely Johnson’s bio-insecticide will ever become available for growers. That’s because bio-insecticides and bio-fungicides, at least for broad acreage crops, rarely get to market in Canada.

“I’ve seen a number of very interesting things come out of Ag Canada labs, or university labs, and they just get to the door and they just stop. They never ever get into the hands of growers,” said Deborah Henderson, director of the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.

Johnson, who is still at the University of Lethbridge, hasn’t given up on his soil fungus that kills grasshoppers, but someone else will do the heavy lifting to get the bio-pesticide to market because he’s getting close to retirement.

“There was just too much resistance,” Johnson said, referring to the process of testing and registering the bio-pesticide with Health Canada.

“I’m not blaming anyone. It’s a system problem…. The whole thing is a mess, this whole business. We need a better model (for commercialization).”

Johnson, who earned a PhD. from the University of British Columbia in environmental science, has been studying biological control of crop pests for more than four decades.

In the early 1980s, he was involved in projects to find bio-pesticides for nosema, a common disease in the beekeeping business.

In the 2000s, Johnson wanted to know if a group of fungi, known as metarhizium, were present in Alberta soils. The same class of fungi had been successfully used to control insect pests in Africa and Australia.

Johnson employed a graduate student to search for the fungus in soil samples taken in Alberta. She found an especially promising version of the fungus, called Metarhizium anisopliae. The bio-pesticide later became known as S54.

Lab and field testing proved that S54 worked.

“It provided effective grasshopper mortality, ranging from 78 to 100 percent within nine days post-treatment,” says an Agriculture Canada Pest Management Centre report, which was possibly published a decade ago, although there’s no date on the document.

“Most importantly, 100 percent mortality was achieved seven days post-treatment for the two-striped grasshopper, the main pest species in the region.”

The report also said that S54 could become a realistic option to control grasshoppers.

“(This) fungus represents the first highly virulent indigenous control agent of grasshoppers in North America,” Agriculture Canada said.

“It shows promise as a safe and effective option to manage grasshopper outbreaks in both conventional and organic production systems.”

The report indicates that scientists and leaders at the Pest Management Centre were excited about Johnson’s bio-pesticide.

It fit neatly into the department’s goal to reduce the use of pesticides and older chemistries that are a threat to off-target species.

Johnson was also excited.

He was surprised that the soil fungus was effective in all sorts of conditions.

“At every point you set it up thinking this is where it’s going to fail,” he said in 2007.

“It’s not going to do this, it’s not going to do that … and yet it keeps passing all the tests.”

In early November, Johnson said he was very optimistic about S54 because most biological pesticides are mildly effective.

Bio-pesticides, as defined by Agriculture Canada, are derived from natural sources such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, plants, animals and minerals.

“They can provide an alternative to synthetic chemicals used to control pest populations in crop production and other settings,” the department says.

That sounds nice, but in the real world, bio-pesticides don’t perform as advertised.

“One of the problems is that none of these things are as wonderful and as effective as people wish they were,” Johnson said.

“Even the ones that work well take time and don’t eradicate (the pest). It’s suppression.”

That makes sense. If there was a naturally occurring and lethal soil microbe that killed every grasshopper it contacted, it’s possible that all grasshoppers in Canada would be dead.

Many bio-pesticides are found in the soil because healthy soil contains millions of fungi and bacteria. Some of those biologicals are toxic to insects and other crop pests.

“We often find pathogens (bio-pesticides) that work modestly, and others that work moderately well,” Johnson said.

The S54 strain was highly effective at suppressing grasshoppers, so Johnson was determined to commercialize the product.

That process was more difficult than anticipated.

Some private companies were interested, but with strict conditions.

“We had about three or four good tries (with private industry). In every case they just wanted (it) handed over for nothing. We were willing to do that for the good of agriculture,” Johnson said.

“Then, they also (said), ‘walk away’ — don’t be involved in the research and don’t be involved in promoting it.”

That seemed absurd to Johnson, who tried to push S54 toward commercialization on his own.

However, getting a bio-pesticide to market is tricky.

The product must be registered with Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

That means safety testing, similar to chemical pesticides, to prove it’s not a risk to the environment or humans.

The cost of safety testing is less than what’s required for chemicals, but the money can be a large hurdle for an Agriculture Canada scientist or university researcher.

“We were operating on research funds…. You’re spending enough to hire two, three people… and a truck,” Johnson said.

“We don’t have big industry money. We don’t have anything big.”

Johnson was making some progress, but around 2014 he ran into a roadblock.

He wanted to take the soil fungus to British Columbia to conduct tests on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. Health Canada said no because it represented a risk to species in a geographical zone outside the Prairies.

Johnson said it was ridiculous for Health Canada to claim that a soil fungus found in Canada is a serious hazard.

“We’re working with naturally occurring agents and not changing them at all…. Somehow, people still think they are … dangerous,” he said.

“Almost every microbe that is in the soil here (in Alberta) is in B.C. Cars go back and forth, wind goes back and forth, insects go back and forth.”

After that decision and other factors, Johnson got frustrated and abandoned the commercialization of S54.

“(My) work more or less came to an end when they demanded mouse safety, rejected our request to do a small, contained experiment in B.C. and then licensed a U.S.A. related isolate for (grasshopper control in) Canada,” he wrote in an email.

The Agriculture Canada Pest Management Centre issues updates on bio-pesticides and their progress through the regulatory system.

From 2011-19, most bio-pesticides were registered for fruit, vegetables and other horticultural crops. Only three were registered for broad acre crops in Canada: one for diamondback moths in canola, another for controlling a disease in alfalfa and another — caprylic acid — to act as a desiccant and harvest aid for pulses and grains.

Several bio-pesticides, heavily promoted by Agriculture Canada as alternatives to chemicals, have not been commercialized:

  • Agriculture Canada scientists in Saskatoon discovered the fungus Phoma macrostoma in the 1990s, but the bio-herbicide is still not on the market.
  • Allen Xue, an Agriculture Canada plant pathologist, developed the bio-fungicide ACM941in the 1990s, but it has not been registered. It was designed to combat root rot in pulse crops and possibly fusarium head blight in wheat.

In 2020, Xue said he didn’t know what was happening with the bio-fungicide because he doesn’t hear from the company with the rights to ACM941.

“There is no connection between the (scientists) and the commercialization (process),” Xue said.

Johnson says it’s obvious that there’s something wrong with Canada’s process to get bio-pesticides onto the market.

Scientists spend their grant money on research and proving their bio-pesticide works, but they don’t have the time or funds to solve the commercialization puzzle.

“You also have regulatory uncertainty, changing rules and sometimes unjustifiable rules.”

Henderson agreed that the current system is challenging, but she’s determined to get bio-pesticides onto the market for fruit, vegetables and other crops.

Her team has identified two isolates of a Trichoderma soil fungus that attack soil pathogens in vegetable and berry crops.

Tests that are required to prove the soil fungus is safe include measuring how much is going into the environment, even though the soil fungus is already in the environment.

“We also put it into plots, and quantified what’s coming out the bottom,” she said.

“(But) they are out there, anyway.”

Henderson has received financial help from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to assist with commercialization, which will cover some of the costs of safety testing.

“It would be nice if it wasn’t this hard,” Henderson said.

“It’s a matter of being very persistent. Maybe I’m a very persistent person.”

Johnson isn’t giving up on his bio-pesticide for grasshoppers. He has continued to study the soil fungus to see if it works on other pests, such as lygus bugs.

A number of years ago, representatives from the air force base at Cold Lake contacted Johnson about the bio-pesticide because they were having problems with grasshoppers near the airfield.

The grasshoppers would attract birds, and bird strikes are a major risk for fighter jets taking off from the base. Chemical insecticides were not an option because such products were prohibited around Cold Lake.

So Johnson took his soil fungus to northeastern Alberta, and it worked.

“We did a big study up there for two years, and we did suppress the grasshoppers,” he said, which reduced the bird population around the air force base.

Other airports in Canada heard about the research, and the Bird Strike Association of Canada invited Johnson to speak at its annual meeting.

That sort of feedback was encouraging.

“When our project was basically killed … I wasn’t so optimistic, but things are better now,” Johnson said.

“People care, and they do care about bio-control.”

In a statement, Agriculture Canada said bio-pesticides face several challenges in reaching market, including shelf life, cost of production, target range, registration, compatability with application equipment and the practicalities of integrating a product into production systems.

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