The Ecophyto Maturation programme explores innovative ways to protect crops without pesticides

A major challenge at the core of the Ecophyto Plan and the Ecophyto Maturation funding programme is to reduce the use of plant protection products to protect crops against pests. We interviewed Florence Jacquet, Head of the programme at the French National Research Agency (ANR) and Xavier Rebourd, President of the Research and Innovation Strategic Committee of the Ecophyto Plan, on the specific characteristics, solutions supported and contributions to the programme.

In what circumstances was the Ecophyto Maturation programme born?

Xavier Reboud: Within the framework of the Ecophyto Plan, farmers must decrease their use of plant protection products by 50%. However, the range of alternatives is not wide enough, and should therefore be expanded. Furthermore, a number of research teams have at their disposal a proof of concept and/or interesting results by the end of the project, but cannot afford to carry on with their efforts. This is particularly true for projects funded through Ecophyto calls. Therefore, it was of great interest to launch a specific call to help teams pursue their research so as to develop an operational solution.

Florence Jacquet: It is well known that, when developing an innovation destined to solve a practical problem, you may reach a difficult stage between research results being generated in public laboratories and their adoption by the private sector. On a scale measuring an innovation’s degree of maturity, the TRL scale, the objective is to go from TRL 4 (laboratory validation) to TRL 6 (field live demonstration). The Ecophyto Maturation programme was born out of this observation and is part of a collaboration between the ANR and the Ecophyto Plan introduced in 2014. This collaboration helped co-fund projects selected for the ANR’s Generic Call for Proposals (AAPG) and targeting the objectives of the Ecophyto Plan, and then launch a Challenge focusing on alternatives to chemical weed control: the ROSE Challenge - Robotics and Sensors serving Ecophyto.

How can it help overcome the gap between the results generated in labs and the development of an operational solution?

Xavier Reboud: The Ecophyto Maturation programme is restricted to consortia involving an additional public-private partnership to support the maturation of conclusive scientific results. It brings together on the one hand, research teams with knowledge and control of the proof of concept, and on the other, socio-economic partners seeking to develop an activity. The projects are directed towards the development of an improved operational system, which requires upstream planning on the conditions of product deployment, in line with end-user requirements.

Florence Jacquet: The ANR’s Maturation programme aims to help overcome this “gap” between TRL 4 and 6, which is described as the “Valley of Death” by stakeholders in innovation funding. They encourage projects bringing together public laboratories and private partners (enterprises, associations of producers, etc.) with the objective of moving up in TRL. Relying on original scientific knowledge already shown in laboratories is required to hope for truly breakthrough innovations from these projects.

What are the themes supported by this programme?

Xavier Reboud: Our first call is focused on two themes where laboratories have some form of control: decision-making support and biocontrol, and which required areas for improvement for the development of practical initiatives. Scientists are familiar with plant pests (fungi, bacteria, viruses, etc.) on which they work, but have not turned this knowledge into a risk protection through a decision-making support tool allowing a stakeholder to access useful information and manage the special risk associated with a pathogen.

Similarly, laboratories have extensive knowledge of pests and their natural enemies, but they haven’t developed biocontrol solutions that can be deployed by the industry in large-scale systems, and in which releases could be made to strengthen the natural regulation of pests in plots. If natural regulation is required, these solutions could reduce the use of pesticides.

For the second call, we’ve gone beyond these issues and extended eligible projects to other forms of advances capable of constituting major levers to reduce the use of plant protection products and/or decrease their impacts. This includes, for instance, plant improvement strategies focusing on identifying the best varieties for pesticide-free systems, or approaches to improve conditions of storage and avoid post-harvest plant protection treatments. In fact, in view of the current regulation for global market transport, most cereals currently being used are treated post-harvest.

Florence Jacquet: The biocontrol sector is a very telling example of how a Maturation programme can be used to deploy solutions. In recent years, national and European funding led to significant progress in scientific knowledge in biology, microbiology, chemical ecology, for instance on olfactory interactions between plants and insects, the part played by a microbiota in plant health or the natural defense mechanism of plants, a knowledge that could potentially lead to breakthrough innovations. But these research results have not been translated, for the most part, into alternative crop protection practices.

In practical terms, what are the solutions under review?

Xavier Reboud: There are two projects, in particular, that are based on the very interesting idea of using an harmful organism as its own enemy.

The “SuzuKIISS: ME” project focuses on the management of a fly, the Drosophila SuzuKII, which develops on ornamental plants and red fruits before they ripen, and attacks fruits in good condition. Its cycle is very short, from 4 to 6 days, resulting in a large use of plant protection products.

The purpose of this project is to prevent the production of offspring by releasing infertile partners. It relies on a strategy used as part of human health management, relying on the release of infertile male mosquitos to drastically reduce the presence of disease-carrying mosquitos (Chikungunya, Dengue, etc.). This proof of concept can be easily tested in full-scale because this fly does not enjoy flying more than 10m above the ground. We can then build a wall around the area to be protected, and release more to assess the feasibility of this solution.

The ”ENFIN!” project stems from a fortuitous observation, a proof of research serendipity, that strains of two related pests, apple and Pyracantha scab (fungal diseases), are easy to achieve and unable of developing on apples.

In fact, Pyracantha scab does not grow on apples and vice versa, but their strains interbreed and produce offspring that do not succeed in growing on apples. On that basis, the disease development cycle can be disrupted by submerging orchards with Pyracantha.

Florence Jacquet: Several types of projects are funded by the Ecophyto Maturation programme, enabling, for instance, the development of alternative methods to the use of pesticides, particularly in biological pest control, such as those listed by Xavier Reboud, and which may apply to various biocontrol methods (use of macro-organisms, chemical mediators, natural plant defense stimulators, etc.). They also include projects aiming to develop decision-making support tools to better observe pests and reason the use of pesticides; and projects aiming to develop natural regulation by modifying the cropping system.

Will there be a third edition?

Xavier Rebourd: We launched a first call in 2019, and a second in 2021. At this stage, we don’t know whether a third call will be launched in 2023. It is worth noting that the projects supported through these two Ecophyto Maturation calls bring something interesting to the landscape. Beyond their potential success, they give a clear sign that there are significant research and innovation issues to consider within those themes. Moreover, there were few programmes focusing on the maturation of biological and agricultural research, so Ecophyto Maturation shows that such a programme can be applied to other fields. Finally, it was great to be surprised by scientists that see in their results a source of improvement that nobody had thought of, so I believe it is important to leave enough room for serendipity in a potential third call.

Florence Jacquet: The Ecophyto Maturation is an original funding instrument among the landscape of currently available research-innovation funding to help achieve the objectives set out in the Ecophyto Plan. It creates an incentive to bring researchers and potential users to work together in this TRL growth stage, for which there is a lack of research efforts. The programme is becoming well known among research communities, and there is no doubt that a new edition would benefit from such a momentum. We are considering a third edition, however its launch for a 2023 funding will be decided by the French Government in July 2022. A day dedicated to the programme will take place on 4 October 2022 in Paris, in person and online. It will be an opportunity to unveil the first results of the projects funded, hear different speakers on the ways to encourage innovation to contribute to reducing the use and impacts of pesticides, and discuss the proposed solutions.

For more information:

Ecophyto Maturation Day, 4 October 2022 in Paris, in person and online

The EcophytoPic Portal

2021 Ecophyto Maturation Call for Proposals

2019 Ecophyto Maturation Call for Proposals

Quelles sont les perspectives du programme ?

Xavier Reboud : Les projets soutenus via les deux premiers appels Ecophyto Maturation apportent quelque chose d’intéressant dans le paysage. Au-delà de leur succès possible, ils envoient le signal qu’il existe des enjeux de recherche et d’innovation importants sur ces thématiques. De plus, il existait peu de programmes dédiés à la maturation de travaux de recherche dans les domaines biologiques et l’agriculture, aussi Ecophyto Maturation montre que ce type de programme peut s’appliquer à d’autres domaines. Enfin, il fut agréable d’être surpris par des scientifiques qui voient dans leurs résultats une source d’amélioration à laquelle personne n’avait pensé, aussi il me semble important de laisser une libre place à la sérendipité dans le 3ème appel dont l’ouverture est prévue pour octobre 2022.

Florence Jacquet : Le programme Ecophyto Maturation représente un instrument de financement original dans le paysage des financements recherche-innovation actuellement disponibles pour aider à l’atteinte des objectifs du plan Ecophyto. Il constitue une incitation pour amener les chercheurs et les utilisateurs potentiels à travailler ensemble dans cette phase de montée en TRL pour laquelle on constate un déficit de travaux de recherche. Le programme commence à être bien connu dans les communautés de recherche et il est certain que la nouvelle édition permettrait de profiter de cet élan.

Une journée dédiée au programme se tiendra le 4 octobre 2022 à Paris, en présentiel et en ligne. Elle sera l’occasion de découvrir les premiers résultats des projets financés, d’entendre différents intervenants sur les moyens d’encourager l’innovation pour contribuer à la réduction de l’usage et des impacts des pesticides et d’échanger sur les pistes proposées.

La journée Ecophyto Maturation le 4 octobre 2022 à Paris en présentiel et en ligne

Inscription obligatoire avant le vendredi 16 septembre 2022 (présentiel) et le 30 septembre en ligne : lien d’inscription

Propos recueillis par Marion Courant


Le programme Ecophyto Maturation

Ce programme a été lancé en 2019, puis renouvelé en 2021, par les ministères de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, de l’Agriculture et de la Souveraineté Alimentaire, de la Transition Écologique et de la Cohésion des territoires, de la Santé et de la Prévention, dans le cadre du Plan Ecophyto.

Géré par l’ANR et co-financé par l’Office français de la biodiversité (OFB) sur l'enveloppe Ecophyto de la redevance pour pollution diffuse, il soutient financièrement des projets dont le but est de transférer une preuve de concept obtenue en laboratoire vers des innovations opérationnelles.

Last updated on 29 July 2022
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