On-farm storage is now a feature of many Australian cropping operations. But where grain goes, insects can follow, threatening the quality and marketability of stored grain and cereal. With Australia’s domestic and key export markets having zero tolerance of live pests in grain sold for human consumption, control of stored grain pests is a major industry priority.
And globally, it’s big business, with the grain protectant market tipped to reach $726 million by 2023.
But as insect resistance to common grain protectants increases, and more consumers demand safer, environmentally sensitive agrochemicals, the race is on to develop alternatives.
Australian agritech startup Davren Global is leading the field with a package of technologies focused around the use of synthetic amorphous silica (SAS) as a novel, non-toxic, and effective grain protectant for the control of insect pests in stored grains and cereals.
More than a decade in the making, it’s a revolutionary technology that solves one of the industry’s biggest unmet needs.
“While there appears to be a variety of ways that SAS leads to insect death, this new approach to insect control seems much less likely to induce the resistance we are seeing to conventional grain protectants and fumigants,” said CEO Darren Cundy.
“Our studies show that a key process is the transfer of the low-density SAS particles to the surface of the insect, where it leads to mortality. This physical phenomenon coupled with the stability of SAS means that grain treated in this way can be stored long-term in older, difficult-to-seal storages, or temporary storage facilities where fumigation isn’t permissible.”
The technology also works where the effectiveness of conventional grain protectants is weakening, he added.
New approach delivers production, marketing and safety benefits
As with conventional grain protectants, SAS is applied post-harvest. But that’s where the similarities end.
“Conventional, liquid-based grain protectants can have short half-lives. That is, they begin to degrade as soon as the farmer prepares them,” Cundy explained.
“But SAS being stable gives the farmer long-term protection, with nine to 12 months post-application studies underway.”
SAS will also give the farmer more market opportunities than conventional insect control products.
“Because it doesn’t need sealed storage to remain effective, it offers two advantages over existing controls,” Cundy said.
“Farmers can utilize unsealable storages that would previously not have been an option if they want effective control. And it gives farmers who use gas-tight storages the flexibility to open and close stockpiles to make partial sales into short-term, high-margin markets.”
Importantly, as a non-toxic, food grade product, Davren Global’s SAS products will seek a maximum residue level (MRL) exempt status – allowing grain treated with their SAS to avoid the export market restrictions and product downgrades that can limit the marketing of conventionally-treated grain.
Grains industry collaboration key to ground-breaking solution
A spin out from the former Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Plant Biosecurity, Davren Global has spent four years building on the work of the CRC, collaborating with leading Australian researchers to develop and prove the potential of SAS for insect control.
With funding from the Grains Research and Development Corporation and commercial partners such as SunRice and GrainCorp, Davren Global has developed its minimum viable product, demonstrating in a laboratory setting and early field trials that it can achieve full control of rusty red flour beetle, rusty grain beetle, rice weevil, and saw-toothed grain beetle – major stored-grain pest species in Australia and around the world.
The Canberra-based startup is developing its lab-based application process to be scalable in order to complement a farmer’s normal grain handling and storage process.
“We’ve done lots of work in the lab to identify the best types of SAS and the processes to get it on the grain in a consistent way. The sweet-spot is finding the right amount of the right SAS to control the insects without markedly affecting grain handling properties,” said Cundy.
But it isn’t just large-scale commercial operators who could benefit from safer insect control. In partnership with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Davren Global is also investigating the potential for stored-grain insect control in small-scale, subsistence operations.
“ACIAR were really interested in supporting Davren to develop a more robust, but less sophisticated, version of the technology that could be used in developing nations, where the economic loss from grain is enormous – often more than 30%,” said Cundy.
“We’ll be sending one of our applicators to a partner in Tanzania this year, working with farmers who might only harvest 100 kilograms of maize. So, there are philanthropic benefits too.”
Big names get behind novel approach to insect control
Davren Global is making waves in the agrochemical industry, with option agreements for future supply and distribution deals already in place with two market leaders. “We’re partnering with Nufarm, one of the largest agrochemical companies in Australia, and recently also signed an agreement with Bayer, one of the largest agrochemical companies in the world,” Cundy said.
Collaborations of this caliber are proof of the enormous potential of Davren Global’s solution, and they’ll serve a crucial role in helping it bring this product to market, he added. “These partnerships will allow us to chart the market acceptance pathways and conduct the commercial trials needed to secure regulatory approval from the APVMA [Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority] and their international counterparts.”
Funding needed to accelerate development and tackle other insect pest challenges
While millions of tons of SAS are produced worldwide each year for a range of industrial uses – from tires and paints to animal feed and cake mixes – Davren Global holds the intellectual property for the use of certain SAS materials for insect management, and has developed deep proprietary knowhow of the characterization and handling of these materials.
To accelerate its journey to market, Davren Global has just launched a seed funding round, seeking $750,000 to $1.5 million to facilitate the scale-up of the application process, to advance its regulatory program, and leverage grant funding. Investment from overseas would allow development work in crops which have a global reach, such as corn.
But funding will also help to accelerate development of SAS for the control of certain amenity insect pests like fire ants, a pernicious problem given their tendency to be found in built-up areas where the use of toxic chemicals is a concern.
“If you think of Davren as a novel insecticide, then wherever there are insects there’s an opportunity to control them in a safe, more environmentally benign way,” Cundy said.
“But grain protectants in Australia is our beachhead market. That’s where we’ve done the most work, and where GRDC has supported us – but clearly it’s a launchpad for international markets.”
And in that space, SAS ticks a lot of boxes. “It’s stable, long-acting, unlikely to induce resistance, and it satisfies the consumer and regulatory shift towards more environmentally benign agrochemicals,” Cundy said.
“It’s just a matter of timing. There are existing [conventional chemical] products out there that are registered and available for use, but the writing is on the wall. It was only in 2020 that the EU withdrew approval for chlorpyrifos-methyl, and that was a common treatment for stored grain.”
With the expertise of Australia’s world-leading research community – and the support of two agrochemical giants – Davren Global’s time has come.