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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Update On The Rapidly Growing Biologicals Sector In Agriculture

This article was first posted on Forbes on 3/15

Biological crop protection products are an important set of options in the agricultural "tool box."  Last week I had the opportunity to attend meetings held in California and get an update on that industry - one I have been following since the 1990s when I worked for Mycogen, one of the earliest companies in this field.  The big take-aways from these meetings were: 

1) this continues to be a rapidly growing sector, 

2) the best fit for these products tends to be in integrated programs with synthetic chemical options, and 

 3) that the lack of international harmonization of regulations is problematic for even these "soft" products.

The meetings were the Biological Products Industry Association Spring Meeting and the  International Symposium and the Biocontrols USA West Conference.  Biologicals are crop products based on naturally occurring chemicals and/or live organisms, and thus they tend to get a positive reception from most who hear about them. They tend to be low in toxicity and generally “soft” when it comes to environmental impact. They have been a rapidly growing segment of the crop protection market for some time, expanding their sales at a compound annual growth rate of around 17%, but biologicals still represent only around 5% of the global market for products used in the growing of crops.

This kind of product is attractive in the sense that development timelines tend to be shorter than for synthetic chemicals and the development costs are much lower. These lower barriers to entry have encouraged nearly 500 companies to participate in that 5% of the market.
Locusts killed by the biocontrol fungus Metarhizium
The biocontrol sector is an extremely diverse collection of technologies. There are natural chemicals that are extracted from plants or produced by microbes grown in fermentation tanks. There are bacteria and fungi that compete with pathogenic fungi and/or produce compounds that inhibit their attack of plants. There are live fungi and nematodes that can infect or attack insect pests and kill them. There are things like predatory mites or parasitic wasps that can be enlisted to help keep insect pest populations in check. There are viruses that infect very specific insect pests, and there are bacteriophages, which are viruses that can be used to control bacterial diseases of plants. There are “semiochemicals,” which might repel insects or attract them to a trap or be used to make it impossible for a male insect to find the pheromone trail to a suitable female for mating.

Graphic showing how the "Pheromone Confusion" strategy works for crop pest control

While most of these products are used in agriculture, some of them play an important role in vector control to combat the increasing threat that society faces from insect-borne diseases.

There is a large subset of biologicals called “bio-stimulants.” Some are based on seaweed extracts, some on yeasts, some on single-cell algae, and many that are mixed “consortia” of fungal and bacterial strains. (There are 235 examples of microbial biostimulants in the market, making it challenging for growers to even know what to try.) These agents can induce plants to activate their own defenses and stress-tolerance strategies.
This part of the industry was described as the “Wild West” of ag products. Its players are working actively to overcome some past tendencies toward the marketing of “snake oils” and to institute more rigor on quality control and the generation of independent data to back up claims. At this meeting, there was clear evidence presented that many biostimulants made a big difference in crop yield – particularly under stress conditions (e.g. heat, drought, cold).
At this meeting, I heard confirmation of a general observation I have made about biocontrols over the decades: They actually make the most sense as part of an integrated program that also involves things like crop genetic resistance and the use of synthetic pest control products. The biologicals can often reduce the need for other chemical agents, and they can also reduce the risk of selecting for pest resistance, which would jeopardize the utility of those expensive-to-develop tools.
As popular as the biologicals approach has been, there are some challenges that were articulated by several of the presenters at this meeting. One issue is that although the food system as a whole is becoming increasingly globalized, the oversight systems under which these products are regulated are highly parochial, with no significant degree of international harmonization. This can undermine the very features of reasonable costs and at least somewhat predictable timelines for regulatory approvals.
As one would expect, the European regulatory system tends to be excessively precautionary and unpredictable. Europeans want their farmers to use more biological controls, but are not making that easy.
In the U.S., regulatory timelines are becoming less predictable because a system called PRIA is uncharacteristically caught up in a political strugglebetween the Trump administration EPA and certain key Democratic legislators.
One of the hallmarks of U.S. regulation, relative to that in the EU, was that it tended to be relatively free of political influence. That status was eroded somewhat in the Obama era, and that change certainly continues today. The EPA is chronically understaffed, so in 2003 a system was set up to collect fees from the companies seeking registrations in order to augment the EPA’s budgets so that they could meet timeline goals. Unfortunately, Congress has not been appropriating its full share, and the FTEs at the EPA have been declining.
Now the reauthorization of the PRIA fee system is being held up by politics and may expire on March 23. It is not just the approval of popular technologies like biocontrol that are being disrupted in this spat. Training programs that are valued by farm worker advocates are also being affected. The industries that develop both biological and chemical control methods for agriculture are perfectly willing to work with a regulatory framework that is based on sound science and overseen by an adequately resourced EPA.
Another concerning issue discussed is that players like global food retailers are sometimes imposing their own rules on their suppliers in ways that go beyond the already-comprehensive regulatory systems. They argue that this is driven by what consumers want in terms of transparency and the absence of chemical residues. Serving customers is a positive goal, but it can be problematic when consumers have misperceptions that have been intentionally cultivated by certain for-profit organic companies.
Overall, I was still encouraged by the progress that is being made in this broad category of crop protection and stimulation. There were several “old timers” like myself involved, but also a gender- and nationality-diverse set of younger participants. This is an important set of tools in the broader toolbox that farmers need in order to meet global food demand in a sustainable fashion.
(Disclosure: I have worked for 40 years in the crop pest control area, including the biologicals and synthetic sectors. I currently produce a bi-weekly podcast on food and agriculture called POPAgriculture, and that communication effort is supported by the CropLife Foundation, which is the nonprofit arm of CropLife America.)