Using nature to beat major crop pests is a growing industry

Strawberries are very much on the mind of Minshad Ansari — or rather, the pest that can blight their growth.

Dr Ansari is developing a new biopesticide to combat the insect, called western flower thrips, which is native to the US South-West but has spread to Europe and elsewhere.

Biopesticides are derived from natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain minerals.

They are hailed as less toxic than conventional pesticides, with the added bonus of only affecting the target pest and then decomposing rapidly, leaving little or no trace or their existence.

"Our products are not harmful to other insects," Dr Ansari, managing director of crop protection company Bionema, based at Swansea University.

He said he was not far off registering his strawberry bio-insecticide with the European Union.

He said it was a long and expensive process, but hopes it will generate major value for his company.

"The strawberry market in the UK is worth £275 million to £300 million," said Dr Ansari. "But the biggest market is Spain and Italy."

He said he believed the time was right for increased use of biopesticides by growers and farmers. Although cheaper, conventional pesticides face regulation and restriction at a Europe and national level, said Dr Ansari, while consumers were becoming more informed about how their food was grown and treated.

Bionema has developed other products, including fungi and nematodes (tiny worms) to target insect pests affecting crops, horticulture and forestry. It also offers product testing and training services for the biological and agrochemical industry.

"We want to focus on these services," said Dr Ansari. "We train people how to use products, how to check their quality, how to make sure they get maximum benefit."

The 46-year-old, of Sketty, spent eight years as a researcher at the university's Department of Biosciences before pursuing his own path.

"I realised research was not enough!" he said.

"It has to be implemented as well. The passion was there."

He said the university had been very helpful in spinning the company out, helping with research, laboratory space and finances. Welsh Government funding and the Lead Growth Wales programme had also played their part.

Dr Ansari said he hoped Swansea could one day become a Welsh centre of excellence in biological control.

In the meantime it was a case of long working hours and faith that investors would come knocking. He said "Investors want to see a bucket of data."

Dr Ansari said Bionema had five directors and two part-time researchers.

He said he has been ploughing his own money into the venture, but added that turnover was growing.

"This is the reality with start-up funding," he said.

He described himself as a "scientist turning (into a) businessman".

He added: "I never get tired when I am working.

"I am passionate about bringing out products which can solve a problem."

www.southwales-eveningpost.co.uk


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