Is your retail outlet biopesticide-ready? Do you have staff who understand and can communicate the role of biologicals in crop production? If not, you may miss the boat and be forced to spend years playing catch up. Biopesticides, also referred to as biorationals or biologicals, are simply another form of crop protection. Once considered the product of choice only in high value crops and among organic producers, they are finding their way into commodity markets as well and rapidly becoming a major market opportunity.
According to the 2010 Worldwide Biopesticide Market Summary published by CPL Scientific, sales of microbial pesticides reached $396 million in 2007/2008. That was a 47 percent increase from a similar review in 2004/2005.
Expand that definition to include botanicals, semiochemicals and macro-organisms, and sales were estimated at approximately $1 billion in 2007/2008. The authors pointed out that it is still only 2.5 percent of the estimated $40.5 billion pesticide market. However, any market that grows 47 percent in only three years is not one to be ignored, and major players in commodity market crop protection are definitely not ignoring it.
“The status of biopesticides in commodity agriculture is that it is still very much an emerging market, but one that is growing,” said Bill Hairston, director, product development, Bayer Crop Science, LP.
Bayer’s purchase of Agrogreen and its biopesticide technology and Novozyme buying Merck Crop Bioscience/EMD are just a sign of things to come and the market’s potential.
Fifteen-year-old AgraQuest sees growth exploding over the next decade. The company is partnering with Monsanto to develop seed treatments and with BASF to sell the fungicide Serenade. It predicts today’s billion-dollar market will increase by a factor of 10 or more by 2020.
Eric Tamichi, Valent U.S.A. Corporation biorational business unit manager, suggested that market growth is being fueled in part by the realization that biopesticides can play a synergistic role with traditional products. His company has in the past focused primarily on high value crops, but is increasingly focusing on cotton and soybeans. He cited the company’s pairing of DiPel Biological Insecticide with pyrethroids as an example of pairing traditional and biorational products.
“Retailers who offer both traditional and biorational products will meet grower needs,” insists Tamichi. “We see biorationals as a fit with traditional chemical products. They help growers with sustainability, export flexibility (lower pesticide residues) and added safety or potential safety (worker safety) benefits.”
That is a new and mutually beneficial role for biologicals, argued Hairston. “Historically, much of the work that has been done has focused on biopesticides as complete replacements for traditional chemistry. Today, there is much more effort examining the potential for biologicals to work in combination with traditional chemistry and for extended protection from biologicals. The end result may be less chemical being used, but the primary goal is better performance.”
Combining Bio-Products With Traditionals
This pairing of products and their ability to increase yield and provide a return on investment is wearing down old prejudices and may reduce the risk of repeating past failures where biorationals all too often became synonymous with “snake oil.”
This is a legacy Tamichi knows well. Valent is one of a handful of companies that has been active in this market for decades, surviving where many others failed. “Some companies over-promised and under-delivered. Products didn’t perform as well, and the companies didn’t support the products,” he explained. “The industry is trying to overcome that and better position products today.”
Scott Peterson, product manager, SipcamAdvan, said the image of snake oil products in the farmer’s mind is fading. Though his company also sells atrazine and other traditional chemical products, it was products like Contans WG that farmers wanted to talk about at the recent Commodity Classic. “We spent 95 percent of our time talking about the control of white mold,” recalled Peterson. “They didn’t say, tell us about biologicals. They wanted to know what Contans WG could do about a problem that was resulting in losses somewhere between two to 30 bushels of soybeans. Growers are looking for products that address specific problems that will give them a return on investment.”
Denise Manker, vice president, product development, AgraQuest, told attendees at Crop World North America 2011 that such pairing is not only good for the companies and retailers involved, but increasingly essential for the grower. “The market has very good single-site chemistry, and we need to match that with protectant multi-site products, which biopesticides fit into very well,” she said. “That helps prevent the devlopment of resistance to the single-site chemistry and helps get us to a safe place in terms of residue management, and I think that is the direction our industry needs to move.”
Limiting residue is a message Manker championed. Although high-value crop producers do face residue limits, especially where export is concerned, that is not the case with commodity crops, at least at this time. While Tamichi, Peterson and Manker all acknowledge that lower residue and safety to beneficial biota in and above the soil is important, they say it is efficacy that sells.
“We promote our products based on facts, not us versus them,” said Tamichi. “Lower residues are a side benefit, but growers need to see the value these products provide. That’s why we spend a lot of time on trials under real-world conditions and provide product so the grower can see how it works.”
“We tend to focus on a solution for the grower,” said Peterson. “Retailers are engaging in biopesticides because they see the products work in the fields. Kip Cullers uses Contans to control white mold on all his soybeans, not just his record-breaking plots. In 2010, he reported zero white mold. That’s a very positive message as we all know how influential he is in agriculture.”
Peterson advised retailers to research the products being offered by each individual company, learn how the products work and what are the best application methods. This will give their growers the best results possible after each biological.
Examine Product Claims
Hairston agreed that retailers and their growers need to carefully examine product claims and the research that backs them up. He also urged keeping an open mind when judging performance. He noted that a higher standard of performance consistency is sometimes expected for biologicals than for traditional chemistry.
Realistic expectations and an accurate understanding of the benefits and performance characteristics of a product by salesman and customer alike are essential, he added. “Biologicals, like most products, will provide varying levels of benefit depending upon the pest pressure,” said Hairston. “A product may provide significant protection and yield benefits with an excellent return on the grower’s investment that is equal or better than traditional chemistry, but if the grower has an unrealistic expectation, you still may have an unsatisfied customer.”
Peterson stressed that the opportunity is there for the taking for retailers to add to their list of satisfied customers and to a retailer’s bottom line. However, he warned that it will take initiative and an investment similar to becoming an expert in seed traits.
“Growers are looking for solutions, and the retailer needs to be able to provide quality products, whether traditional chemistry or a biopesticide,” he said. “Learn about the product lines. If someone is willing to educate themselves and understand biologicals, they are in a position to bring their growers a higher level of value, and that should turn into higher profitability for the retailer.”
The 2010 Worldwide Biopesticide Market Summary from CPL Scientific defined microbial biopesticides as crop protection products “based on bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and nematodes as active ingredients.”
However, there are several other classes of biological products in the marketplace already. They include botanicals, semiochemicals and entomopathogenic nematodes. Botanicals are products derived from plants, such as oil from the Neem tree, that is highly valued for as an organic insecticide.
Semiochemicals are naturally occurring pheromones and allelochemicals. Pheromones act within a species to signal insect feeding, mating and egg laying. Allelochemicals act between species to repel a parasite or competitor or to attract a pollinator or other “helper” organism. Once defined in its chemical form, these can be synthesized and applied to attract, trap or kill insects or used as] part of a confusion strategy, sending false signals to elicit behavior. One millionth of a gram of pheromone per hectare is enough to disrupt the mating of the codling moth in orchards.
Macro-organisms, biologicals that can be seen with the naked eye, include predators, parasitoids and entomopathogenic nematodes, the natural beneficials in nature. These include naturally occurring organisms, as well as those introduced from other ecosystems such as the Asian Lady Beetle, introduced by the USDA to prey on the soybean aphid. Work is progressing on “seeding” fields with selected entomopathogenic (beneficial) nematodes. See “Nematodes…Good, Bad and Controlled” AgProfessional, December 2009.
Although the use or appreciation of some biologicals is as old as agriculture itself, the ability to reproduce and formulate them is growing rapidly. As research investment in biologicals grows, ever more effective biologicals are likely to be identified, suggested Bill Hairston, director,
product development, Bayer CropScience, LP.
“We are still in the early stages of learning how to screen for biocontrol organisms,” he said. “As we get better at screening, the products are going to get better!”