Regulating innovation to support Australia’s agricultural productivity

Chief Scientist Phil Reeves APVMA
27 June 2018
Phil Reeves, Chief Scientist

Each year the world’s population grows by 83 million—almost four times Australia’s population—according to a recent United Nations report.

With mounting pressure to produce more food to support our expanding global population and take opportunities in markets locally and overseas, farmers are increasingly turning to science to advance agricultural productivity. 

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), as a regulator of agricultural and veterinary (agvet) chemicals, plays a key role in new agvet products getting to market, while also being responsible for ensuring the protection of the health and safety of people, animals, crops and the environment.

Responding to new registration applications in a manner that is timely, science-based and proportionate to the risk related to the use of a product is essential. A key component of this is remaining across new and emerging technologies, advancements and innovation.

Here I discuss two emerging developments we’re currently watching—nanotechnology and biopesticides. 

Nanotechnology

Advances in nanoscale science, engineering and technology have paved the way for novel applications, devices and systems in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Use of nanotechnology in these sectors is not yet widespread, but that is expected to quickly change, with more than 3000 patent applications lodged globally in the past decade for nanopesticides alone.

Current interest in nanopesticides is focused predominantly on three formulation types: polymer-based nanoformulations, inorganic nanoparticles such as silica and titanium dioxide, and nanoemulsions.

The benefits of these formulations compared to existing formulations include the release of active ingredients in a slow and targeted manner, protecting active ingredients against degradation and increasing the solubility of active ingredients that have poor water solubility.

There are other nanotechnologies just over the horizon that are also expected to provide significant benefits to agriculture such as wireless sensor networks able to detect and locate pest-infested portions of a crop and communicate the information via satellite to a laptop computer, and nanoclay devices installed in drip irrigation lines that release agrochemicals on demand.

Benefits we can expect from using these types of technologies include a reduction in the environmental footprint and less unwanted effects to treated and non-treated crops due to smaller chemical quantities being used and more targeted application. 

Currently the APVMA is developing a regulatory approach to nanotechnology products which is largely being informed by our 2015 report, Nanotechnologies for pesticides and veterinary medicines: regulatory considerations. That report discusses what we know about nanotechnology and provides a good resource for wider discussion about emerging developments and the key regulatory considerations for agvet chemical nanomaterials.

Biopesticides

Using biological chemical products to control pests and diseases has been a popular agricultural practice for centuries, and we continue to see new products coming through the regulatory system and being approved for use.     

Biological products fall into several groups, including the biopesticides, such as pheromones, hormones and growth regulators. Other key groups are the plant extracts and oils, and the microbial agents consisting of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa. There are also Plant-Incorporated-Protectants (PIPS).

If we look at biopesticides, one of the main advantages is that they have a reduced risk profile compared with conventional pesticides. Generally they target the pest and closely related organisms very well. They also tend to have a shorter residual time in the environment, and they align well with integrated pest management programs.

A general hesitance to invest by industry, potential for chemical resistance in treated crops and vegetables, and a reliance on combining with synthetic treatments for products to work, are some issues continuing to hamper efforts for biopesticides to become more widely used.

For the APVMA and other regulators, the overriding issue with emerging technologies like nanotechnology and biopesticides is that most risk frameworks are designed to assess and address the risks of conventional chemicals. This means that regulating new and innovative products effectively and in an efficient manner requires us to continually adjust our scientific assessment practices.   

Taking a broader approach to regulation, like the one we’re developing for nanotechnology, will certainly be helpful in that respect.

Innovations in agricultural productivity