Bio-Insecta Biological Pest Management

In Greece the ladybug (paschalitsa) is considered gouriko, a sign of good luck, as it is in Russia and Italy. As a child I was aware there were bugs you could kill without compunction and a few you shouldn’t. And squashing a ladybug was tantamount to sin. There was a reason for this, one that was not particularly relevant for a kid in the city, but of great importance to his great-great-grandparent farmers. Ladybugs eat the aphids that feed on—and destroy—crops.

Bio-Insecta predatory and parasitic insects
Bio-Insecta predatory and parasitic insects

Of course, bugs and worms that prey on or parasitize pests have been a part of agriculture for centuries, before they were displaced in large part by chemical pesticides. The emergence and growth of organic farming has led to a rediscovery—and further development—of biological pest management.

Organic farmers, who eschew the use of chemical pesticides, have an array of alternatives to controlling the pests that feed on their crops: crop rotation, physical barriers, natural fungicides, plant extracts and bacterial toxins. They can also make changes to the habitat of the beneficial insects that are already present in their fields and that prey on or parasitize pests, changes that help enhance their survival and reproduction. But they can also boost the size of the population of these beneficial insects by buying more such bugs and releasing them at critical periods during the season.

Buying bugs is not as odd as it sounds. As early as 300 CE, nests of weaver ants were sold in Asia to control infestations of the deservedly grossly named lychee giant stink bug. And yes, there are companies that do just this.

Bio-Insecta is one of them, and a rare and inspiring instance in Greece in which a government-funded research project spun off a robust, rapidly growing company with sales not only in Greece but abroad. In 2005 Pavlos Skenteridis, an entomologist with a doctoral degree from ImperialCollege, joined a two-year project funded by the General Secretariat for Research and Technology to explore ways to exploit the range of native beneficial insects in Greece. In 2007 Skenteridis established Bio-Insecta, the first company of its kind in Greece, and began to supply farms in Crete, the Peloponnese, Macedonia and other areas of Greece with the predatory and parasitoid insects mass-produced in the company’s laboratories in Thermi outside Thessaloniki. Ladybugs, of course, but also tiny wasps that parasitize the larvae of the leaf-miner, nematode worms that feed on vine weevils and cabbage maggots, mites that prey on fungus gnats and thrips.

Skenteridis says his company is still small in comparison to the other 30 firms in Europe that produce biological control agents. Still, with 25% of his production being exported to Spain, Italy, the UK and elsewhere, the four-year old firm is already making its mark, and plans are underway to expand the range of beneficial indigenous insects that the company produces. The firm won the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Association’s “Green Dream Competition” in 2011.

One of the greatest challenges the firm faces is the widespread lack of knowledge among local farmers. Whereas over 95% of cucumber crop in the Netherlands, for example, is grown with the help of biological pest management, only 2% of the crop in Greece is cultivated in this way. To its credit, the company has created and trained a network of local technical advisors. This support complements a range of (distributed) products such as pherome traps and biopesticides, which, in addition to the helpful bugs it produces, enable cultivators to adopt an integrated eco-friendly and in the end more economical approach to pest management.

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Become a Farmer! Community-Shared Agriculture Platform

As Greeks struggle to adapt to a protracted period of harsh austerity, new initiatives have emerged that break with existing economic and social practices and offer new models of organizing the way we provide for and take care of our selves. One of the most interesting of these initiatives comes from the tradition of community-shared agriculture (CSA), in which individuals pre-book a share of the weekly harvest of small farmers. Although CSA’s have existed in Japan, North America and Western Europe for decades, Gine Agrotis (Become a Farmer!), which began operating in Greece in March 2012,  is something  new for Greece.

Home page of the (Gine Agrotis) “Become a Farmer” website

The idea behind Gine Agrotis is relatively simple. Register with the platform and book a field on one of the certified organic farms that belong to the service’s network. You decide how much land to reserve; there are two-, three- and four-person packages available, at a cost ranging from €14.20 to €20.90 per week. In contrast to many other CSAs, you also decide what vegetables you want “your” farmer to plant for you, selecting from a list of vegetables that can be seasonally grown. You prepay for a year’s worth of the harvest from your plot. About 30 to 90 days after the agreement has been made, your first weekly shipments of the vegetables from your plot start being delivered to your home or office.

The initiative is based on an innovative and disruptive business model that leverages the potential of a social networking platform to connect local  farmers, in large part young farmers, directly with consumers. Cutting out the middlemen means better prices for both consumer and farmer. Farmers are freed from distribution concerns and associated costs (they also benefit from lower fees for inspection that Gine Agrotis has secured for them in the context of the QWays ISO Certification system for organic farming, to which all the network’s farmers are committed to applying.) Subscribers are guaranteed organically grown food that is fresher than what they would probably find anywhere in the city and at lower cost.

As Gine Agrotis suggests, food is political. What and how we eat reflects positions we have taken on a range of social, health and environmental issues. In this light “becoming a farmer” can usher in other changes in the way its subscribers live. One involves trading in winter strawberries and fall asparagus for local seasonal produce with a decidedly smaller carbon footprint. The platform also ties its urban consumers more directly to the process by which their food is grown. Subscribers can visit their fields and receive regular posts with photos showing the progress of the crops in their field (apparently there’s also an idea of providing live video streaming from the field).

Gine Agrotis was founded by Dimitris Koutsolioutsos, a 26-year-old graduate of the Athens University of Economics and Business and son of the businessman who started the enormously successful Greek-based international luxury goods manufacturer, Folie-Folie. Koutsolioutsos rightly sees this initiative as an attempt to “break the market”, and a way to offer “a better quality of life to the city’s residents.”

Healthful eating is naturally part of this better quality of living. I am fairly certain that most subscribers wind up eating a greater quantity of fresh vegetables as part of their diet. And at times, such as those occasioned by a bumper crop of zucchini, in ever more creative ways.