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May 11, 2018

Biologicals Effective, Sustainable, and Offer a Strong ROI

Pam Marrone, a pioneer and leader in the bio-pesticide world, looks forward to the day when the majority of growers use biologicals because of their efficacies, not just because they offer other advantages.

She freely admits that biologicals are most often used today to stay below maximum residue levels (MRLs) and allow workers back into the fields more quickly. “Surveys tells us those are the top two motivators,” she said.

And they are two very good reasons. Chemicals typically have label specifications preventing application a set number of days before harvest, so often a grower will switch to a biological to maintain pest control during that time period. Biologicals can also be applied in the morning and the workforce can return to the field in the afternoon so often they are used for that purpose.

But Dr. Marrone, who is founder and CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations (and previously founded AgraQuest), said the many new biologicals on the marketplace are also efficacious. “They offer an ROI. I look forward to the day when the average grower will use a biological to improve crop yields, quality and the nutritional content of their fruit.”

She has spent her career developing biologicals and she knows they work and that they are equal to or better than the chemical alternatives that they are sold against. Marrone knows most growers don’t believe that and she believes it is a perception and an education problem, not an issue with the products themselves. She notes that most growers are not even sure what a biological is. One recent survey in the almond industry revealed that 83 percent of growers couldn’t define it. A biopesticide basically controls pests and disease through non-toxic measures such as disrupting the lifecycle of a pest. For example, the firm sells Venerate, which immediately—in less than one minute according to Marrone—stops the feeding of insects such as the Peach Twig Borer. Damage to the crop immediately stops and the bugs die off within a week.

This, Marrone said, is a great example of the perception problem facing the biologicals industry. Often researchers, at the land grant universities she said, will conduct a biological vs. chemical trial and use an unfair test to judge efficacy. In this example, a researcher might set up the test to determine how many of the pests are still alive 48 hours after application. The chemical could be judged as more efficient because a greater number of pests are dead. Marrone said this is a lack of understanding of the mode of action involved in the biological. In both instances, damage to the crop has been halted. A week later, the trees treated with the biological might show far fewer pests, but that was never measured.

She also complains that biologicals are often trialed as a stand-alone crop protection tool against a cocktail of chemicals. Marrone said organic growers do use biologicals as a stand-alone or in concert with other products registered for use on organic crops. But, she said 80 percent of biologicals are used by conventional growers as part of a rotation or in the tank mix with chemicals. When being trialed, Bio Innovations uses these very common practices to test their products and she believes these type of real-solution trials should also be utilized by independent researchers when gauging their efficacy.

Another very important factor with biologicals, according to Marrone, is that their potential use expands and evolves once they are registered and being used by growers. She explained that a chemical typically takes about $300 million and a dozen years of testing to pass regulatory muster and reach the marketplace. Their toxicity requires that level of testing. As such, once these chemicals come into the market, the labels are complete and the researchers know everything there is to know about them. They have probably gone through thousands of trials on every conceivable crop and each of those crops is listed on the label.

To register a biological, it costs about $10 million and they usually hit the market within five years. These products do go through rigorous testing by government officials so their safety is assured, but their number of uses are not always known. They might have only had 250 trials on handful of crops. Marrone said typically about 10 crops appear on the label but as early adopters test the product, more crops are added and the use instructions are further refined, and improved. Marrone said this is a different business model and one that growers aren’t necessarily used to, but at the end of the day it produces what they are looking for: more crop protection tools in their arsenal.

She noted that for specialty crops there are virtually no new chemical crop protection tools being introduced. The big companies are concentrating on the large program crops. The biological side is a different story. She estimated that 20 new biologicals were introduced in the past year. Marrone clearly believes biologicals are the future for the specialty crop industry. She added that Bio Innovations is starting to focus some of its attention on bioherbicides. “I believe it has been 25 years since a new chemical herbicide has been introduced.”

Besides offering a superior ROI for growers in her estimation, the other factor in what she believes will be continued growth of the biopesticide industry is demand by consumers and the supermarket buyers who deal with the growers. They are demanding increased sustainability, which means more environmentally-friendly crop protection tools and fewer residues on the fruits and vegetables in the marketplate. Marrone said the crop protection industry is seeing total sales decline, while biologicals are growing at a 15-20 percent annual clip and achieving greater market share. Currently, the biological industry represents about seven percent marketshare of crop protection tool sales.

Marrone said younger growers and younger researchers—and she could have added younger consumers—are fueling the growth of the biological industry.