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May 20, 2020

Biologicals Finding Mainstream Applications

While biological crop protection tools may be introduced to many specialty crop growers as an allowable product for organic production, companies in the biotech space believe their best application is as part of a cocktail for any crop, including conventional production.

In fact, Pam Marrone, founder/CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations and a 25-year veteran in biological-based products, believes that integrated applications of conventional chemicals and biologicals often perform much better than a chemical-only cocktail, with far less environmental impact or worry. She believes that while perceptions are being altered, biologicals continue to be underrated precisely because they are not tested in the same manner as their synthetic chemical counterparts.

She said pest control advisors and researchers, even those affiliated with the university agricultural programs, don’t do justice when examining bio-pesticides. In today’s farming environment, she said products are almost always used in a cocktail approach. Yet when experts are testing the efficacy of a biological, they often do it as a standalone product and claim it does not stand up against what they are currently using, which is typically a combination of chemicals. “We tell them that is not how it is being used and that’s not how it should be tested,” she said. “The best bet is a biological with a chemical product. That’s where you show your ROI (return on investment).”

She continued by rattling off a number of Marrone Bio trials that have paired products with chemical to solve a host of problems. Marrone Bio, which was founded in 2006, has an impressive list of biologicals that are in use every day solving pest problems for both conventional and organic growers. She said organic growers love biologicals and do not have to be convinced to give a new one a try. But she admits that the sheer number of conventionally grown crops makes that sector the growth driver for all crop protection tools, even biologicals.

Marrone continues to advocate against what she calls the “old paradigm,” which is veteran university researchers not giving biologicals their due. “That is beginning to change especially among the younger generation of researchers” she said. “It depends on the age of the researchers…I’m not an ageist but it is a generational thing. There are researchers in Cornell looking at all-biological program on fireblight. And there is a team at the University of Florida who have come up with an all-biological program against the Asian Citrus Psyllid. It all depends on how you design the test.”

Using business growth as a barometer, it appears the biologicals are coming out of the closet so to speak. Marrone said her company registered 38 percent growth over the last two years and revealed that it continues to add to its list of products and continually adds new crops to the labels of existing products.

Marrone also noted the growth in the industry as both start-ups and large chemical companies have biological crop protection programs in the works, and have products on the market or soon will.

One such firm is AgBiome, a biotechnology company located in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The firm was launched in 2012 and has developed partnerships with some leading agricultural companies to collaborate and bring innovative products to market.

Jim Spadafora, director of field development and technical services, recently discussed the company’s evolution with Western Grower & Shipper. He said the key to the firm’s success is its proprietary Genesis platform. The platform combines advanced data science, the companies’ collection of fully-sequenced microbes and targeted bioassays. Genesis allows the company’s researchers to efficiently screen thousands of microbes for their relevant application in agriculture. The company currently has fully sequenced genomes of more than 75,000 microbes. He said AgBiome will be able to bring biologicals to market more quickly as the process can both identify and rule out microbes for a specific application, such as a particular pest or disease.

The company’s first product on the market is Howler fungicide, which it calls a “fungicide like no other.” Spadafora said it has many different modes of action that gives it high efficacy on different crops and diseases, as well as fungi resistant to other products The company says it provides preventative, long-lasting activity on a long list of soilborne and foliar diseases including botrytis, collectotrichum, phytophthora, pythium and rhizoctonia. It is most commonly used on a number of specialty crops, including berries and vegetables. Unlike many biologicals, it has no special handling requirements. Howler gives the grower flexibility, with a 0-day pre-harvest and minimal re-entry intervals.

AgBiome has several other products in various stages of development and Spadafora expects additional products to be registered for use in the next several years.

While Howler can work alone on a variety of crops, the AgBiome executive agreed that integrating biologicals into a chemical program is often a very effective way to use those products. It reduces use of synthetic fungicides and opens up the conventional world to biologicals.

Speaking to the reputation of biologicals, Spadafora said that while there may be some lingering reticence from some, any stigma that might have once been there is largely gone. Biologicals, he said, go through a “very, very rigorous testing process and if they don’t work, we are not going to put them out there.”

He said the value of the sector is apparent as the need is there to replace synthetic chemicals that are being removed from use by regulators. Biologicals offer an option that the grower needs.

Another company operating in the biologicals space is relative newcomer Boost Biomes Inc., which is a resident of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology. The three-year-old company is headquartered in San Francisco and expects to bring its first biological—a fungicide—to market in the fall of 2022. CEO Jamie Bacher did caution that the lab facility, which is housed in a commercial incubation space, has been temporarily closed because of California’s COVID-19 shutdown. That may impact the ultimate launch date.

The company was co-founded by Bacher and his UC Berkeley bioengineering professor, Adam Arkin. The Boost Biomes team is using technology developed in Arkin’s lab. “Our proprietary discovery platform uses high throughput DNA sequencing, elective enrichment and advanced informatics to identify microbial products with important commercial roles,” is how the company’s website defines the process.

In a nutshell, the concept uses a statistical analysis concept to identify beneficial microbes. Bacher said the approach is faster and less expensive than traditional bioengineering methods and should allow the team to bring crop protection tools to the market faster.

Another key element of Boost Biomes business model is that it is partnering with crop protection firms, who at this point are anonymous, to help discover, develop and commercialize the ultimate products. Again, Bacher touted this approach as a quicker path to product registration and availability.

He said the firm’s first product, which has not yet been given a commercial name, has shown to be very effective against foliar diseases such as downy mildew on grapes.  It also is effective against both fusarium and verticillium wilt. “In the lab it has been effective on 14 different pathogens,” said Bacher, who noted that the company is targeting high value crops. For example, he said the biofungicide has proved effective against brown mold on peaches and blue mold on apples.

He added that the company’s approach is to work closely with growers and packers and determine what their needs are as Boost Biomes develops products and conducts trials. Like the others interviewed, Bacher said the while biologicals can be used as standalone products and have great value for organic production, their greatest efficacy is often in combination with other items, including synthetic chemicals.

He is a big believer in the crop protection ability that biologicals bring to growers, noting that all the multi-national chemical giants are investing in the space as the category’s future is bright. “My take is that growers and packers have a lot of openness to new products as long as the data is there to prove their worth.”