By Pam Marrone

Sustainable Ag 1 | MBIThe market for biopesticides is between $3 and $4 billion, or approximately 5-6 percent of the more than $60 billion global pesticide market. The biopesticide compounded annual growth is projected at 15-20 percent compared to approximately 2 percent growth for chemical pesticides. So, what is causing the faster global growth rate and increased adoption of biopesticides?

Before I answer that question, what are biopesticides? Biopesticides, regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, are pesticides and plant growth regulators derived from natural materials. There are two major categories:

A) Biochemical pesticides contain naturally occurring substances that control pests. Biochemicals include such materials as potassium bicarbonate, phosphorous acids, some plant extracts, pheromones for insect mating disruption and botanical oils. Not all natural biochemicals are regulated as biopesticides. To be regulated as a biochemical biopesticide, the EPA requires the registrant to prove that the substance has a non-toxic mode of action to the pest or pathogen. For example, the insecticide products based on fermented spinosads and avermectins are regulated as chemical pesticides because they have a toxic mode of action to the pests.

B) Microbial pesticides contain microorganisms (dead or alive bacteria, insect viruses, fungi, actinomycetes, protozoa, etc.) that function as biocontrol agents, affecting the pathogen directly or indirectly through the compounds they produce. The most well-known and biggest microbial biopesticide is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which was commercialized more than 70 years ago and is still used on more than 2 million acres of vegetables.

So, again, what is causing the faster growth rate and increased adoption of biopesticides?

1. Biopesticides offer a good return on investment, which translates to better yields and quality in integrated programs.
The perception is, however, that biopesticides are only for organic crops and are not strong enough for conventional production. Yes, biopesticides are quite suitable for organic production. However, when biopesticides are incorporated into conventional programs, their unique modes of action often result in higher yields and better quality compared to chemical-only programs. Farmers rarely use anything stand-alone and typically mix and rotate a variety of pest management tools. For example, a biofungicide comprised from an extract of giant knotweed controls plant diseases and increases yield and quality standalone, but also can enhance the crop yields and quality of conventional programs when combined with traditional fungicides. Some examples include more and bigger potatoes, greater tomato tonnage, bigger and sweeter melons and 10% more cucumbers. In testing biopesticides, it is important to look beyond the number of lesions or pests on a plant (percent disease or pest control) and look at the yields and quality of the crop, which is where biopesticides excel. A bioinsecticide from a new species of bacteria, Chromobacterium subtsugae, stops pest feeding in less than a minute, reduces egg laying and egg hatch, and therefore has a fundamental effect on the whole pest population. This may not be captured in typical trials that look at dead bugs after 48 hours.

2. Residue management is a top driver.
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 food companies, have imposed their own, often stricter, limits on chemical residues that may regularly dictate zero measurable pesticide residues to meet consumers demands. 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, as such, can be used right up to harvest.

3. 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, are readily biodegradable and 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. Regulators are increasingly restricting chemical pesticides that have effects on mammals or the environment. Biopesticides can be incorporated into growers’ programs that help growers maintain their pest management, while complying with these restrictions.

4. 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 taking advantage of 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.

5. 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.

It costs approximately $300 million and takes 11-12 years for a chemical pesticide to reach the marketplace. As such, once these chemicals come into the market, the labels are complete and the university researchers, crop consultants and pest control advisers have familiarity with them. Thousands of field trials on every conceivable crop have been conducted to fill out the label. To develop a biopesticide, it costs less than $10 million and takes less than five years to reach the market. Because of that speed, there may be fewer than 250 trials on a handful of crops behind the product. It’s a different business model than for chemical pesticides, but at the end of the day it offers growers more crop protection tools in their toolbox to more rapidly solve current and emerging pest management problems, and meet consumer and food channel demands for sustainability and transparency.

Dr. Pamela Marrone is the founder and CEO Marrone Bio Innovations, based in Davis, California.