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INSIGHT: Biopesticides to Feed a Growing and Hungry World

Sept. 24, 2018, 1:20 PM

Whether it is in China, Guatemala, Brazil, Europe, or the U.S., consumers, and especially young people, want more information and transparency about how crops are grown and how their food is produced.

Food companies are taking notice, and efforts such as the Field to Market initiative are defining what it means to farm sustainably. Conventional farmers also are 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 billion to 10 billion by 2050, finding new methods to grow more food on less land in a sustainable manner is more important than ever. Therefore, farmers need effective and environmentally sustainable solutions to protect against losses caused by pests and crop diseases; 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.”

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 its Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division. Not all things found in nature are safe, so the EPA has a process for ensuring that only the lowest-risk products are approved as biopesticides.

While considerable progress for their adoption has been made, biopesticides are less than 5 percent of the agrichemical market and barriers remain. Perceptions persist about efficacy and cost, but more important, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of biopesticides by agronomists, growers, crop consultants, and key influencers such as university and government researchers. Therefore, biopesticides often aren’t tested or used correctly based on their modes of action.

Successful use of biopesticides requires more intensive application and management due to biodegradability. Growers initially must take more time to learn how to properly utilize their biopesticide’s unique mode of action. Most biopesticides must be applied every one to two weeks, while some (but not all) chemical pesticides can be used every three weeks. It is important to keep in mind that biopesticides are preventive, meaning they must be applied before the crop disease is present and before insect pest populations get too high.

Biopesticide outcomes often aren’t as dramatic and may not occur as quickly as pesticide results. They aren’t a broad-spectrum solution, and while this is often thought of as an advantage, it also can be a disadvantage to some growers looking to kill a wide range of insects or diseases with one product.

According to trade association CropLife America, bringing a new chemical pesticide to market takes 10 to 12 years and requires 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. By 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:

Yields and Quality in Integrated Programs. While biopesticide developers have seen many trials and farmer demonstrations 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 together more than one product in the spray tank. Farmers do this to get better results and to delay or stop the development of pest resistance (see 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 20 times greater return on investment for growers. It also has led to the possible reduction or elimination of use of conventional 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. These biopesticide-driven results and benefits mean more money in farmers’ pockets as the return on investment is two to 10 times greater, depending on the crop.

Recently, biologicals have been a breakthrough technology in seed coatings—sometimes called “seed treatments”—to protect crops at planting time from destructive insects, nematodes (roundworms that feed on the roots of plants), and diseases. 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-biological combination in increasing yields of corn and soybeans.

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. 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. One example is 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 a 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.

Managing Residues. Pesticide residues (MRLs, or 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. Due to their generally low risk to consumers, biopesticides are exempt from residue tolerances (the amount of chemical allowed on the crop at time of harvest) and 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.

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, like naturally occurring compounds and readily biodegradable products, don’t pollute air and water. Most biopesticides can be applied with the lowest level of personal protection equipment such as gloves and masks and typically don’t require special permitting and large buffer zones—or prohibited use areas—around homes, schools, public spaces, and water bodies.

Labor Flexibility. Biopesticides have short farmworker 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.

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. Food companies and retailers are initiating programs to support the transition of more farm acres to organic production. Organic is still a small percentage of the total farm acreage, however. 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 wouldn’t 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 chief executive officer of Marrone Bio Innovations, a biopesticides producer based in Davis, Calif.

The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Bloomberg Environment, which welcomes other points of view.