Plant-based bio-pesticide 'a world first'

IT HAS been a busy few weeks for Innovate Ag.

The small Wee Waa-based R&D company recently registered Sero-X, a bio-pesticide it has spent 15 years developing, in time for the current cotton season.

And it has just secured investment from Belgian company Biological Products for Agriculture (Bi-PA) to take its ground-breaking product international.

Sero-X will "transform food and fibre production globally”, said Innovate Ag's project director Nick Watts.

The "world-first” pesticide was discovered and developed in Australia in collaboration with major Australian research organisations, including Lismore's Southern Cross University, during the "crucial early stages of research”, Mr Watts said.

"Sero-X is an economic, nature-driven form of pest control for the cotton industry and other crops that can help us deliver environmentally sustainable and ethical agriculture,” he said.

Its active constituents are derived from the butterfly pea, which contains peptides known as cyclotides that repel insects - the first time such compounds have been used in agriculture.

Butterfly pea was used as a food and medicine in some cultures and cyclotides had a range of therapeutic uses and were potent disease controllers as well, Mr Watts said.

"So Sero-X is more accurately called a pesticide than an insecticide.”

Kerry Watts, managing director of Innovate Ag and its parent Growth Ag.
Kerry Watts, managing director of Innovate Ag and its parent Growth Ag. Picasa

Butterfly pea has evolved over millennia, selecting the compounds that only have an impact (toxic, or deterrent, or repellent) on organisms that are bad for it in some way.

"So our plants' defensive peptides only work on insects that feed on plant material (the term is phyto-phagous) and have no impact on pollinator or predatory insects - making it safe for bees and other useful insects.

"In fact, the product has no poison scheduling and the company's goal is to move it into use in food crops,” Mr Watts said.

Innovate Ag had a permit to trial Sero-X over small areas of macadamia plantations and the uptake had been "phenomenal”, both on the North Coast and around Bundaberg, he said.

"We exhausted our permit in an hour.”

Butterfly pea produced the compounds in such abundance, and the ratio of kilograms of plant to litre of product was "exceptionally favourable”, he said.

"To treat the entire cotton industry we only need to grow 3ha of the butterfly pea.”

Mr Watts credited SCU as being instrumental in the development of the product.

"It's a world-class research institution. Without them we wouldn't have got where we are,” he said.

The company will later consult SCU to study how bees metabolise the product.

A partnership with the University of Queensland's Institute of Molecular Bioscience further developed and characterised the plant's active constituents.

UQ's Professor David Craik said one great thing about the pesticide was that when peptides and proteins broke down they did so into amino acids - "which is just food”.

"There is no concern about toxic residues.”

Bi-PA will develop and register the product outside Australasia, gaining market access through its partners.

The agreement allows Innovate Ag to fast-track the development of Sero-X for cotton and other crops, while leaving control of it in Australian hands.

"This is a win for regional Australia, as the product will be manufactured in Goondiwindi, Queensland, and exported to the world from there.

"The company's head office will remain in Wee Waa.”

Bi-PA CEO Johan De Saegher said adding a high performing insecticide with an excellent environmental profile to its portfolio was a "great step” for the company.

"It will allow us to address international market needs for safer agricultural products and our global network will also allow us to speed up the development,” Mr De Saegher said.

"Bi-Pa's investment means Innovate Ag will continue to be majority Australian owned but allows us to bring Australian innovation to international markets much faster than Innovate Ag would have been able to achieve alone,” Mr Watts said.

Topics:  cotton industry pesticides southern cross uninversity

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