As the first signs of spring begin to emerge, neonicotinoids find themselves back in the spotlight. Doubt emerges on the effectiveness of the existing ban and farmers, especially sugar beet growers, are presented with a challenging dilemma in how to combat Virus Yellows.
Amidst this challenge, innovative alternatives are being developed as new and crucial components in the farmers’ ‘toolbox’.
One such option was last week unveiled by the John Innes Centre (JIC) on the Farming Today programme. Dr. Yiliang Ding revealed a potentially game-changing alternative – using anti-virals that target the virus within the plant, instead of focusing on the insect hosts.
Virus Yellows: a specific threat to sugar beet
Virus Yellows poses a significant threat to sugar beet crops, causing significant economic losses. Transmitted through aphids, the virus stunts plant growth, reduces yields, and compromises the overall health of sugar beet plants.
It can reduce yields by up to 50%, impacting individual growers, domestic sugar production, and an industry that sustains almost 7,000 jobs. Addressing Virus Yellows is not just about protecting individual crops but ensuring the resilience and viability of the British sugar beet industry.
A lingering ban and persistent exemptions
On 18th January 2024, the Government granted emergency authorisation for Cruiser SB, a seed treatment containing the banned pesticide thiamethoxam. This controversial pesticide is known for its adverse effects on pollinators, soil health, and aquatic ecosystems.
The exemption permits the use of Cruiser SB exclusively on the 2024 sugar beet crop in England, under “emergency situations” determined by an independent forecast created by the Rothamsted model.
The approval of emergency use for four consecutive years raises concerns about the ban’s long-term efficacy (though the threshold was not met in 2021). Amidst the persistent challenge of addressing viral diseases farmers are at a crossroad; in 2022 and 2023, 29% and 40% of farmers opted against using neonicotinoids despite emergency authorisation to do so.
Fortunately, innovative solutions and alternatives offer hope.
The John Innes Centre’s targeted anti-viral approach
Enter the John Innes Centre‘s targeted anti-viral approach, led by Dr. Yiliang Ding and Rudy Maor. Departing from traditional insect-centric methods, their research focuses on the RNA structure analysis of the Virus Yellows. The pioneering approach is developing anti-virals that selectively eliminate disease from within the plant, avoiding collateral damage and shifting away from substances that target disease-transmitting insects.
An enzyme plays a key role in cleansing the virus within the RNA, bolstering plant survival. Administered through a leaf spray, this novel treatment is effective even post-transmission, so treatment can be applied after infection. The technology signifies a pivotal step in actively shielding plants from diseases, with potential applications extending beyond viruses to include fungal and bacterial infections.
Driving commercialisation, Dr. Rudy Maor, the Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at JIC, is leading efforts to translate these scientific breakthroughs into practical, sustainable crop protection solutions. The plan is to raise funds to establish a company to supply farmers with this innovative product.
BBRO’s multi-pronged efforts
Simultaneously, the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) is actively engaged in multiple alternative trials and practical solutions that can be deployed now to address Virus Yellows. Initiatives include a “camo-cropping” trial with Morley Farms, exploring the use of coloured crops, flowering mixes, and ‘decoy brassicas’ to deter aphids.
Vicky Foster, Head of the BBRO emphasizes their commitment stating: “The BBRO is currently investing £1.5m to look for alternative solutions to control virus yellows and is working closely with plant breeders and chemical companies that are also prioritising work in this area.”
For more information on the 12 strands of research currently being undertaken by the BBRO and to access an overview of the industry’s Virus Yellows Pathway, visit the BBRO knowledge hub.
Continued research into disease-resistant varieties, new chemical and biological controls, and government support for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) are also emerging as viable options. Additionally, the development of virus-resistant sugar beet varieties using gene-editing techniques holds promise as a long-term solution.
In navigating the challenges posed by neonicotinoid bans, the industry is actively embracing innovation and alternative solutions to secure the future of sugar beet cultivation.