−− “The AgriTech sector has some of the best scientists in the world, but that science is often slow to reach end-users at the farm level… we need to get them to market more quickly, in more countries across the world,” says WBF President Carol Pullen.
The World BioProtection Forum (WBF) is a non-profit organisation that encourages collaboration between the biocontrol industry and academia in the AgriTech sector, while working to secure a regulatory framework that supports sustainable agriculture. WBF Membership is open to all stakeholders interested in cooperating in areas of common interest, to ensure the successful development and commercialisation of products that are integral to clean, green agriculture.
In January 2023, Carol Pullen, a well-known figure in the biocontrol industry, took over the reins of the organisation as its new President. She sees her term, which runs for two years, as a chance to focus on the core mission of the WBF – connecting different stakeholders, with a view to developing and commercialising more biocontrol products.
Carol has worked in the biological industry in various roles. Most notably, having hailed from the family that started Oro Agri in South Africa, she started the grape business for Oro Agri in the USA, before moving to Europe, where the company focussed on PREV-AM – its patented biological insecticide, fungicide and acaricide. The success of PREV-AM in Europe prompted Oro Agri to become more involved in the regulatory side of the business, so Carol built a team focussing on technical development and registration of biocontrol technologies, and she played a key role in establishing OroBioPheno, a state-of-the-art R&D facility in Portugal. In 2022, Carol changed focus to a consulting role exclusively with the Rovensa group of companies, working on a range of special biocontrol projects.
In this interview, she explains why collaboration between industry and academia is so important in the biocontrol sector, and how she intends to guide the WBF in fulfilling its mission to develop more stakeholder connections during her Presidency tenure.
Let’s start at the beginning. What do you hope to achieve as President of the WBF?
The WBF was founded on the premise of connecting the biocontrol industry and academia, and this has always been an attractive concept to me. In fact, it is why I became involved with the organisation as one of its international Advisory Board members a couple of years ago.
I believe very strongly that bridging the gap between industry and academia is key to the biocontrol sector’s success, and I would like to see the WBF deliver on its core objective of connecting different stakeholders, including students, entrepreneurial academics, start-ups, spin-offs, larger industry players and end-users.
Why is the connection between industry and academia so important?
The AgriTech sector has some of the best scientists in the world, but unfortunately that science is often slow to commercialise or reach end-users at the farm level. When many of these technologies could simultaneously address the challenges of global food security, carbon net zero, pollution and biodiversity, we need to find ways to get them to market more quickly, in more countries across the world.
There are many reasons why this is not happening right now, including regulatory hurdles that the industry has been grappling with for over 30 years, and which many organisations have dedicated themselves to reforming – mostly with limited success (although recent successes in Brazil give me hope that the rest of the world may soon sit up and smell the sustainable coffee!) The WBF has also become involved in this fight, and I know our Chairman has spoken extensively about this recently (see here) and it is something we will continue to work on as we seem to be making some progress with our focussed campaign.
However, just as important, but far less recognised, are actions that could be taken to ensure that the application of new science – mostly discovered in academia – is delivered with appropriate speed to agricultural practice. Currently, the path from scientific discovery to real-life application is too often stunted and fragmented. To speed up the adoption of relevant science and novel technologies, we need to ensure a smooth and rapid path from laboratory to market, and that requires the financial backing and practical involvement of industry to correctly and consistently develop, manufacture and commercialise new technologies. This is why crossing the bridge between academia and industry is so essential.
Why are you so passionate about this point, in particular?
Well, I speak from personal experience, and to a certain extent it has shaped my own career. Academia was critical in helping to develop PREV-AM, Oro Agri’s patented biological insecticide, fungicide and acaricide, which was a core focus for me for many years.
Back in 2008, when I first started working with Oro Agri, I was a wine lover and I had done several courses in wine making and viticulture at various institutes. I joined Oro Agri to work primarily on growing the grape business, only to discover that grapes were not listed on our label. South African vineyards had shown potential for phytosanitary concerns at recommended rates at the time, and as a result it was advised that PREV-AM should not be used on grapes, and especially not in combination with sulphur. The same was true for pome fruit.
This was a major setback, so I went to see Dr Gubler from UC Davis, where he led plant pathology research as a Specialist in Cooperative Extension. I explained to him that I had seen a study showing that PREV-AM controlled powdery mildew and Botrytis, yet my own internal team was recommending not using the product on grapes. We ended up running studies with UC Davis to see how the product would perform, and today grapes are our number 1 crop! This is all thanks to the work done with Dr Gubler and UC Davis.
Added to that, today sulphur is one of our main tank mix partners, and we are launching a new product combining sulphur and orange oil.
The same holds true for using PREV-AM in pome fruit, where some in-house phytosanitary concerns prevented us from adding PREV-AM to pome fruit, yet after working with various institutes and developing an appropriate strategy, this too is now one of our top crops.
That’s just one example of how important it is to involve academia in developing biocontrol products.
How does the WBF intend to connect with industry and academia?
Industry, academia, policy makers and other stakeholders are all interested in finding alternatives, such as biocontrol, that enable sustainable crop protection in agriculture. We try to connect those people and encourage them to work together – we encourage them to Collaborate to Innovate. At the WBF’s annual flagship event we host dedicated sessions precisely for this goal, and we promote networking activities between different stakeholders.
However, in a post-COVID world, we find that many people are still less willing to travel in person, while the appeal of virtual events has increased, so I would like to also organise some interim virtual activities throughout the year. This could take the form of webinars in which academics present their latest science and industry members are invited to comment or suggest ideas on how to commercialise them. The webinars would also give industry a chance to feed back some of their major concerns or challenges. Maybe academia is not always aware of those challenges, but might have some good ideas on how to address them – perhaps even some ready-made solutions.
I would also like to encourage academic institutions seeking AgriTech research funding to consider stronger problem-solving goals, and a more collaborative focus, in general. If we can encourage more academics to take that approach, I think that would also be a good outcome.
Of course, my dream is that actual commercial partnerships will emerge from these WBF events – if we can connect just a handful of scientists with commercial partners that can get their ideas to market, then I will feel that my time as President will have been worthwhile.
You also mentioned students – how would you like to help them?
I think it’s great that most modern AgriTech courses now include modules on integrated pest management (IPM) and sustainable agriculture, but in many cases these modules are still quite theoretical. I would like the WBF to play a role in providing the next generation of farmers and agronomists with some real-world, practical insights, both from end-users of biological products, and from people working in the biocontrol industry.
Again, I think that expecting students to attend international conferences is often unrealistic, although one of things I would like to do by the end of my Presidency is raise sponsorship for up to 10 travel grants for students attending our Annual World BioProtection Summit and Awards. This will require sponsorship from the industry, but if we could achieve this by 2024, it would provide those students with some great international and industry exposure.
Do you also intend to work with end-users?
Educating end-users is a vital part of the biocontrol sector’s success. Many countries already have government programmes encouraging more sustainable agriculture, and there seems to be increased involvement from academic institutions relaying knowledge to farms and farmers. There is also already a lot of grant money available, and often stake-holders from across various sectors are needed for successful grant applications. We could possibly bridge this link, as well between academia and industry and end users.
I would be interested in the WBF offering a series of webinars, field visits, demonstration trials or a recorded library of presentations for end-users, explaining how biocontrol solutions can help control pests and disease, and optimise plant health and yield.
This is quite a crowded space, when governments, colleges and farming organisations are already working to educate end-users on sustainable farming, but I would be happy to test the waters to see if this is something that could be helpful, either by the WBF alone or in collaboration with other organisations.
What is your prediction for the biocontrol sector in the future?
Recent regulatory changes in Brazil, which are setting a new standard for the biocontrol industry, show how an environment that supports clean, green agriculture can result in a dramatic uptick in sustainable farming. The Brazilian market for biologically-based pesticides and bioinoculants grew 67% during the 2021-22 season (see here). As soon as the rest of the world catches up on those regulatory reforms, the global agricultural industry will be ready to switch to sustainable practices. This is why I believe the future of agriculture is sustainable, and I believe biocontrol will be a significant part of that.
I have two years to help the WBF make an impact by connecting stakeholders who can advance those technologies, from lab to market. If in 2025 I can look back on my tenure as President and say, “I helped make those connections”, then I will consider my time in this role a success.
For more information about the WBF, and to become a member, please visit https://www.worldbioprotectionforum.com/