By Pam Marrone, Founder and CEO, Marrone Bio Innovations
Wherever I travel around the globe, whether it is in China, Guatemala, Brazil, Europe or the U.S., consumers, especially young people, desire more information and transparency about how crops are grown and how their food is produced. Food companies are taking notice of this environment, and efforts such as “Field to Market or Farm to Table” are defining what it means to farm sustainably. Conventional farmers are also beginning to adopt “healthy soil” initiatives that have been the basis for organic farming, which continues to be the fastest growth category for food.
With estimates that the world’s population will increase from 7 to 10 billion by 2050, finding new methods to grow more food on less land in a sustainable manner is more important now than at any other point in history. Therefore, farmers need effective and environmentally sustainable solutions to protect against losses caused by pests and crop diseases, to improve food yields, maintain quality, and feed a growing, increasingly food-conscious world. Chemical pesticides are dominant today, but the fastest growing category of crop inputs is “biologicals” and more specifically “biopesticides.” These are becoming essential tools in the growers’ toolboxes by promoting plant health and controlling unwanted pests and diseases, which leads to better yields with reduced environmental impact – as well as improving grower profits.
Large agrichemical companies now realize that not all problems can be solved with chemical pesticides, which is why many of them have made investments in biologicals, either through acquisitions or partnerships.
Made from naturally occurring biodegradable substances, such as microorganisms, plant extracts, fatty acids or pheromones, biologicals for crop protection also can play a significant role in helping growers meet consumer demands. They address issues such as pesticide residue, worker safety, toxicity to wildlife and pollinators, air pollution, and surface and groundwater contamination. Biologicals for crop protection are well regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency within the Biopesticide, Pollution and Prevention Division. Not all things found in nature are safe, so the EPA has a process for insuring that only the lowest risk products are approved as biopesticides.
According to CropLife America, bringing a new chemical pesticide to market requires 10-12 years and nearly $300 million in investment. The pipeline of new chemical pesticide active ingredients from the large agrichemical companies is small, and very few new chemistries that work in novel ways are being developed. Meanwhile, regulatory agencies around the world are restricting older chemical pesticides. Most recently, Canada and Europe banned certain chemical insecticides in the “neonic” class due to their effects on pollinators such as bees that are needed to grow many crops. In contrast, there are many new biopesticide active ingredients being commercialized each year, and not just in the U.S., which has the most established registration process for biopesticides, providing a good opportunity to fill the pest management gap caused by the dearth of new chemical options coming on the market.
So, what is causing the faster global growth rate and increased adoption of biopesticides? They offer several key benefits:
1. Better yields and quality in integrated programs – While biopesticide developers have seen many trials and farmer demos showing that their products and others’ biopesticides can perform as well as chemical pesticides on their own–particularly when measuring marketable yields–biopesticides are best used when incorporated into programs. Farmers rarely use anything stand-alone and typically mix and rotate a variety of pest management tools. They alternate products from spray-to-spray and often mix more than one product together in the spray tank. Farmers do this to get better results and to delay or stop the development of pest resistance (see #2 below). Because of the unique way that biologicals work–known as their “modes of action”–we often see that 1+1=3 instead of 2, meaning that combinations of chemicals and biologicals result in higher yields and better quality compared to chemical-only programs. For example, Regalia (an extract of giant knotweed), used at low application rates, consistently yields five bushels per acre more corn and two to three more bushels per acre in soybeans. For coffee rust, which is becoming more serious in all coffee growing regions, a grower in Guatemala rotated Regalia® with a chemical fungicide, resulting in more coffee berries and a concurrent boost in coffee bean phenolics, possibly yielding more flavorful coffee.
For controlling insect pests such as the navel orangeworm, which is becoming resistant to chemical insecticides, use of microbial insecticides has resulted in higher almond yields, creating an estimated 20x ROI for growers. It has also led to the possible reduction or elimination of usage of controversial chemicals, such as the increasingly restricted insecticide chlorpyrifos, on citrus, coffee, corn, cranberries and apples. Other examples of biological pesticide benefits include larger, healthier banana trees, higher strawberry and rice yields, sugarcane with higher sugar content, larger (better grade) potatoes and tomatoes, and higher alfalfa tonnage. Greater weight also has a higher total digestible nutrient content, which is important for animal feed. These biopesticide-driven results and benefits mean more money in farmers’ pockets as the return on investment is 2-10x greater, depending on the crop.
Recently, biologicals have been a breakthrough technology in seed coatings (or “seed treatments”) to protect crops at planting time from destructive insects, nematodes (roundworms that feed on the roots of plants) and diseases. Biological and chemical stacked seed coatings together are now widely used on corn, soy and cotton, and marketed by Bayer, Syngenta and others. One product, based on a new species of bacteria that stops insects and nematodes, is now in commercial use stacked as a seed treatment with chemicals, showing increased yields equal to, and often better than, the chemical-only seed treatments on corn, cotton, and soybeans. Two pesticidal bacteria stacked with a beneficial, yield enhancing fungus from Israel created an all-biological seed treatment that performed as well as or better than the all-chemical or chemical-bio in increasing yields of corn and soybeans.
2. Resistance management – Most of today’s chemical pesticides are single site of action, attacking one vulnerable metabolic pathway of the pest, weed or plant pathogen. Therefore, after repeated use of a chemical pesticide, pests can quickly develop resistance to that product. When resistance occurs, pesticides do not perform as expected. Biopesticides typically have unique, complex and, sometimes, multiple modes of action, which means that pests and plant disease-causing pathogens are unlikely to develop resistance to them. As such, biopesticides can extend the life of chemical products when used in rotation or in tank mixtures. An example in recent field trials conducted against corn rootworm, one of the most economically damaging corn pests, in locations that are resistant to corn engineered to control these pests. Application of our bacteria with its novel mode of action, either in-furrow at planting, or as a seed treatment, resulted in effective rootworm control on Bt-traited corn that failed to control rootworms on its own.
3. Managing residues – Pesticide residues (MRLs – maximum residue levels) are regulated by individual countries and via global rules (the Codex Alimentarius, or Codex), but buyers, including retail supermarkets and branded fruit companies, have imposed their own, often stricter limits on chemical residues that regularly dictate zero measurable pesticide residues. Biopesticides, due to their generally low risk to consumers, are exempt from residue tolerances (the amount of chemical allowed on the crop at time of harvest) and, as such, can be used right up to harvest. When there is a pest or plant disease that shows up near harvest, a chemical may not be an option if the residue persists or is not allowed by buyers. Using a biopesticide for those last sprays provides the reassurance of crop protection and ability to export without rejection by a buyer. I have received harried phone calls from customers lining up boat or air shipments of their grapes or strawberries, and then it rains unexpectedly. Biopesticides can likely stop an infection of bunch rot/gray mold.
4. Safety and biodegradability – Biopesticides generally affect only the target pests or plant pathogens and pose little to no risk to birds, fish, beneficial insects, pollinators, mammals and other non-target organisms. They also pose minimal risk to workers and, similar to naturally occurring compounds and readily biodegradable products, do not pollute air and water. Most biopesticides can be applied with the lowest level of PPE (personal protection equipment such as gloves and masks) and typically do not require special permitting and large buffer zones (prohibited use areas) around homes, schools, public spaces and water bodies.
5. Labor flexibility – Biopesticides have short worker re-entry times, typically four hours, as opposed to many chemical pesticides that have re-entry intervals of several days to weeks. In today’s tight farm labor environments, farmers can increase worker and grower productivity and reduce labor costs by allowing faster re-entry times when using biopesticides. This allows spraying in the morning and doing other tasks, such as harvesting or pruning, in the same day.
6. Most biopesticides can be used in organic production. Because biopesticides are pigeon-holed as “organic-only” products, I put this last. Today, consumer demand for organic food exceeds supply, and organic food continues to be the highest growth food segment in the U.S. and Europe. There is a shortage of organic corn and soy acres to meet that demand, and growers typically can make more money per acre with organic commodities. Food companies and retailers are now initiating programs to support the transition of more farm acres to organic production. However, organic is still a small percentage of the total farm acreage. Biopesticide industry firms sell to conventional growers that are using all the aforementioned benefits of biopesticides to optimize their operations. Biopesticides, when used as part of an integrated pest management strategy, provide all growers with maximum flexibility in meeting shifting consumer demands.
The evolution of biologicals as an increasingly trusted and reliable tool in a grower’s toolbox that would not have been possible without advances in science, technology, and manufacturing. These advances have significantly improved existing products in performance, formulation, ease of use, shelf life and spectrum. In the coming years, the role of biopesticides will evolve from that of an additional tool for pest management and crop production to increasingly serving as the foundation of food, feed and fiber production.
Dr. Pamela Marrone is the founder and CEO Marrone Bio Innovations, based in Davis, California.