DR. ILDIKÓ VARGA: "BIOSTIMULANTS FOR BIOEFFICIENT AGRICULTURE"
A pillar of the EU's common agricultural policy is the new EU regulation on crop improvement.
Dr. Ildikó Varga, an expert on biostimulants, is a vibrant personality and a new addition to Certrust's professional palette. In her opinion, the newly introduced regulation has made the field of fertilizers so complex that the legislation can only be managed by harmonizing different professional perspectives and experiences.
Certrust has become the first Notified Body in the EU in the field of fertilizing products, establishing its market leadership. Ildi, always cheerful and bubbly, has played a crucial role in this activity and has also improved the gender balance at the company. We would now like to introduce you to our new colleague, so you can get to know her professional background and personal interests.
First of all, what do we mean by biostimulants? How do they differ from pesticides?
The primary function of fertilizers is to protect the plants we grow or store from pests. These pests can include viruses, bacteria, fungi, animal pests, and plant pests (weeds). The group of fertilizers closest to biostimulants can affect plant growth.
Biostimulant products interfere with plant life processes in such a way as to improve plant metabolism (e.g. increase stress tolerance), thus ensuring a fertilizing effect. These products induce physiological changes in plants like vitamins do for us. All life forms on Earth work on a similar principle, so we are much like plants in our human functioning.
Could you provide some examples?
You are probably familiar with the salicylic acid in Aspirin. It was first extracted from willow bark, for example, by medieval 'witches'. If we add salicylic acid to the plants we grow, this compound protects them just as it protects us. It triggers a defensive reaction in them, for example, against frost and UV radiation. We shouldn't regard these products as something from a science fiction movie: an apple won't grow three times bigger. However, such substances can prevent critical situations and provide a 3-5% yield boost.
My "personal favorite" biostimulants are bacteria, as I was also involved in the development of biological pesticides and microbial fertilizers before joining Certrust. These beneficial bacteria come from the soil and although they are still around us, they are not the same species as, for example, those found in our gut flora. In my opinion, bacterial products are the best option to aid crops, soil, and the living environment. In this way, we can not only produce food more safely but also protect the environment for the future of our children.
So this is not the field of "genetic modification" that environmental organizations are campaigning against.
Not to such an extent that EU legislation, in another regulation, thoroughly regulates the contained use of genetically modified organisms and the possibility of their release into the external environment. Of course, fertilizing material must also comply with this regulation, so I can reassure you that no genetically modified living organisms can currently get into their soil. We Europeans are very careful about our environment for the time being.
A counter-example to EU agriculture could be Indonesia, where I have had the opportunity to observe farming practices. In that region, the priorities are quite different: many systems are not so tightly regulated, the environment is not so carefully looked after or food safety is based on different principles. The EU's common agricultural policy is clearly about looking after our continent. The new FPR (Regulation on the placing of plant protection products on the market) is a vital element of this policy.
So biostimulants are on the market throughout the EU?
Yes, CE-marked plant protection products can be marketed throughout the EEA. We are already receiving more and more inquiries from the US and also from Asia, e.g. China. This is clearly in line with previous EU forecasts of significant quantities of fertilizers from China. We expect our customer numbers to stabilize within the EU, while outside of it a sharp rise is likely to happen.
I suppose there's also a rivalry with China...
The impact of market competition is universal in all areas, but the stereotype of low-quality products coming from the East is disappearing. The East combines capitalization with its rapidly developing professionalism to achieve a quality that meets EU requirements.
Is China more relaxed or more permissive in its regulation?
In my opinion, each state or economic area is as permissive as the system it has developed for itself, but it is worth mentioning that European regulations have always been at the forefront of security. It is, therefore, possible that a Chinese or American regulatory system might be 'looser', but today's manufacturers are aware which markets they can enter with a certain product quality.
What about Hungarian agriculture?
In Europe, we lead the way not only in the quality of our agricultural products but also in the quality of our soils. I think the regulation of Hungarian agriculture is still the strictest in the whole of the EU, at least regarding fertilizers. The EU Green Deal's short and long-term plans for 2030 and 2050 set out a strategy for climate neutrality and biodiversity enhancement that could lead to a cleaner Europe, also better soil quality for us in 10-20 years
I have great confidence in these efforts, in strengthening environmental awareness and in the sustainable development of agriculture. But who knows? Even small changes can lead to huge events. Think of the butterfly effect.
With all this in mind, what do you consider the most crucial mission today?
As a researcher and a natural scientist, I am convinced that our primary mission is to preserve diversity (biodiversity), slow down climate change, and adapt to it most dynamically, including in agricultural production practices.
This happens partly through newly bred plant varieties that are more resistant to the many environmental challenges. It will also require the development of integrated farming technologies that address environmental, human health, and economic needs. Among these technologies, pesticides are becoming less and less significant, but biostimulants are gaining ground. At Certrust, we facilitate this process as the notified body for conformity assessment for placing biostimulants and other fertilizers on the EU market.
Coming back to you: how is your average workday? Do you ever have one?
I don't have an average workday, at Certrust there is a constant dynamism to my work. I can honestly say that I love it. I feel that at Certrust I can finally fulfill myself professionally and as a person. As I have already mentioned, I have been a researcher and will perhaps always be. I completed my Ph.D. as a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki, where I was developing a biological pesticide for use in forestry. I later continued similar work in Hungary. At that time, I also took an active role in laboratory work. However, the life of a researcher is quite hectic, so when my son was born I wanted to take it a bit easier, so I moved back home to Veszprém.
When my little boy, Máté was big enough, I started researching again and that's when I got into the world of microbial fertilizers. I was able to partially initiate the development and licensing of three products that I feel have contributed to practical agriculture.
During my years as a developer, I became more and more aware of the fact that I wanted to acquire a broader knowledge of the field of quality assurance. So I went back to school, and then at the University of Pannon, alongside my son and work, I qualified as a 'Master of Quality Assurance Engineer'. Of course, all this would have been unthinkable without the support of my partner and my workplace, CerTrust, who are supporting me again, as I look to take another course in September.
Meanwhile, enter Certrust...?
That's right. As a mother with a young child, I wanted a job where I could combine my professionalism with a more informal schedule. I have a very specific qualification, so when I found Certrust, I knew it was a great place for me. As a mother living in the countryside, I need to be able to work from home, so I have the freedom to choose when I come into the office. Even though I spend my days in front of the computer, I never have a "normal working day". Sometimes I'm answering client questions about incomplete technical documentation, sometimes I'm reviewing biostimulant field trials, and other times I'm learning from colleagues the auditing skills needed for quality control in manufacturing.
How do you experience the mental side of your job?
In my opinion, our working environment affects the time we spend with our families just as much as vice versa. For this reason, I consider it of the utmost importance to be as self-identified as possible in both our roles - as family members and as employees - one of the key elements of which is a spiritual balance through self-awareness. I consider it particularly important to develop and build workplace communities with a democratized structure, where mutual recognition, empathy, and cooperation are present at an organizational level. One of the foundations of this is trust and support for our colleagues. There's a reason why the word "trust" is in the name of Certrust: as long as we have it, our team will be successful.
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