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Biopesticides Taking Hold, Serving Multiple Purposes

Biopesticides Taking Hold, Serving Multiple Purposes

Use of biopesticides has grown dramatically in recent years with an annual year-over-year growth rate of about 16 percent and a global market that has seen revenues more than double over the past seven years.

Nevertheless, Dr. Tim Johnson of Marrone Bio Innovations in Davis, California, who holds a Ph.D. in entomology from Purdue University, believes the industry is still in its infancy with a lot of room for expansion.

“There are a lot of microbes out there,” he said during a presentation at the Mint Industry Research Council’s Annual Meeting, January 25 in San Diego. “We’ve only identified a fraction of the microbes on earth and you can find a microbe to do just about everything.”

Biopesticides help meet the challenges of sustainable agricultural production in three specific areas, Johnson said. They help in integrated pest management by reducing the chemical load of conventional pesticides, which in turn can help with resistance management. Biopesticides can minimize the environmental impact of pesticides while increasing a farm’s productivity. And they can assist in harvest and labor management, particularly when it comes to worker exposure concerns.

Biopesticides also are far less expensive to bring to market than conventional pesticides, Johnson said, costing an average of roughly five- to ten-million dollars to develop and register in the U.S., compared to about 250 million dollars to develop and register a conventional pesticide.

Also, Johnson said, most biopesticides can be used in organic production.

Biopesticides typically fall under the microbial category, Johnson said, and are derived either from fungi, bacteria, viruses or protozoa. There also are biochemicals that are considered biopesticides, including plant extracts and pheromones.

The biopesticides industry was started with the commercialization of a product containing Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, in 1956. The industry got a big boost when, in 1977, a strain of Bt was isolated that was toxic to mosquitos.

By 1994, the EPA formed a specific division to register biopesticides. “The fact that we had people dedicated to what we do as an industry was a huge advancement,” Johnson said.

The industry today is still small compared to the overall crop protection business, which brings in an annual revenue in the 50-billion dollar range, Johnson said. But the industry’s two-billion dollar revenue, “is still a pretty meaningful number,” he said.

To get an understanding of the industry’s growth over the past twenty years, Johnson noted that the first biofungicide wasn’t registered until 2000. Today, he said, “We have a number of them that are based on different species and strains of Bacillus.” Also, he said, despite the similar origins of the different biofungicides, they have markedly different characteristics.

Investments in bionematicides have grown dramatically in recent years, as fumigants such as methyl bromide “are going by the wayside,” Johnson said. He added that the investments in bionematicides are part of a trend of looking at soil-borne pests. “Traditionally, we tended to look above ground, but now there is a lot of work going on pests below ground,” Johnson said. “These are very challenging pests that include corn root worm larvae, seed corn maggots, wireworms and, of course, nematodes.”

Johnson said several biopesticides could have a fit in mint, particularly the bionematicides.

During his presentation, Johnson also highlighted a preliminary study done last summer that found Regalia, a biofungicide from Marrone Bio Innovations that activates a plant’s defenses, increased fresh plant weight in mint.

“It gives us an indication that mint may be responding to Regalia,” he said. “We’re hoping to follow that up more rigorously this summer.”

As for the future of the industry, Johnson said much of that will depend on continued investments into biopesticides. “I think future investment is very important to our industry and as long as we continue to perform, and investors make money, that money will continue to be invested.”

He added, “I think the emphasis on below-ground for both biostimulants and pest control will continue, which should bode well for both yield enhancement and pest management.”