The Biopesticide Market Is Thriving

Sclerotini sclerotiorum; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sclerotini sclerotiorum on bushbean; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Biopesticides still occupy a relatively small portion of the overall crop protection market, but the sector is seeing extraordinary growth and is on track to double its market share in the next five years.

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“We are a small but strong force,” said Bill Stoneman, executive director of the Biopesticide Industry Alliance. “I believe the overall climate in agriculture favors biopesticides and will allow us to achieve that growth.”

The dollar value of biopesticides use in the U.S. is expected to grow at a rate between 15% and 16% this year and is approaching 6% of the global pest control market. If growth continues at an annual pace of 11% to 15%, the segment will reach 12% of the global market by 2020.

While 12% is still small, it would be an impressive achievement for a segment that held just 2.5% of the North American market in 2006.

Poised For Growth
Biopesticides have been around for centuries with recorded use of nicotine to control plum beetles dating to the 17th century. One of today’s most widely used biopesticides, Bacillus thuringiensis, was first discovered in 1901. Bt crops around the world include cotton, eggplant, maize, potato, rice, soybean among others. But even as organic production has exploded over the past 20 years, use of biopesticides is sometimes still viewed with suspicion.

That perception is changing as major crop protection companies acquire small biopesticide companies or introducing their own products. Certis USA, for example, has licensing agreements with Montana State University-Bozeman and Montana BioAgriculture Inc. of Missoula to develop and commercialize new fungicides based on Bacillus mycoides isolate BmJ, a naturally occurring, nonpathogenic bacterium that triggers a plant’s immune response to pathogenic fungi, bacteria and viruses resulting in systemic acquired resistance to diseases.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Biopesticide and Pollution Control Division, more than 430 biopesticide active ingredients and 1,320 products were registered in 2014. In comparison, about 245 biopesticide active ingredients were registered at the end of 2008. The Biopesticide Industry Alliance has 92 members ranging from small companies with $100,000 in sales to corporations such as BASF and Bayer CropScience.

Bill Stoneman, executive director, BPIA

Bill Stoneman, executive director, BPIA

Stoneman credits the upsurge in use to both consumer interest in how their food is grown and also to farmers looking for “softer” or more targeted approaches for their integrated pest management programs. Increased attention to soil biology and what role microorganisms play in overall crop fertility and health is another factor driving growth. BPIA estimates that 93% of all biopesticide products used by agricultural producers are used in conventional systems.

“Today, farmers look at new materials and their specificity,” Stoneman said. “They are focused on the pests in question with as soft as possible impact on the overall biodiversity of the farmland system.”

One example is Bayer’s Poncho/VOTiVO seed treatment, which uses a bacterial strain that lives and grows with young roots to create a living barrier against nematode damage. That product is used on 100 million acres of corn, soybeans and cotton.

Another is Contans WG, a biological fungicide to control white mold (Sclerotinia spp.) in edible beans, soybeans, sunflowers and canola in the Upper Midwest. “We won’t see it used across all soybean acres in the U.S.,” Stoneman said. “Its specialty is where Sclerotinia is a large problem.”

Niche Applications Remain Vital
Even though biopesticides do fit well in some broad acre applications, Stoneman expects most of the industry growth to continue to come from smaller farms producing high-value minor food crops. Fruit, vegetable and turf crops are grown on only 12 million acres of farmland but account for approximately 40% of all crop sales.

Not only do consumers want to purchase fruits and vegetables without pesticide residues, but growers often need to treat for a pest shortly before harvest to ensure the produce is blemish-free to meet another customer demand. Many biopesticides do not have harvest intervals and most have short, if any, re-entry restrictions.

This allows a strawberry grower, for example, who knows a cold front is coming and bringing with it an increased chance of mold, to apply a biofungicide in the morning to protect the still ripening fruit and pick today’s ripe fruit for sale in the afternoon.

A few years ago, Stoneman expected crop pathology to dominate new advances in the biopesticide sector but now expects insect control will see more growth. He points to examples such as CYD-X, a bioinsecticide from Certis USA that contains a virus to control coddling moth on apples and pears; or Valent BioSciences’s bacterial-based larvicides for controlling mosquitos as advances in bioinsecticides.

Some of the more interesting new biopesticides are being developed in other specialized markets.

One is a product from Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI) that uses a bacterial strain of Pseudomonas fluorescens to kill invasive zebra and quagga mussels that are overtaking water systems around the U.S. Zequanox can be used in both municipal drinking water systems and open lake environments.

Pollinator health is another high-priority area. The IR-4 Project has supported research to develop biochemical control of Varroa mite, associated with honeybee colony collapse. IR-4 is a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agricultural experiment stations to support pesticide development for specialty crops.

Potential Pitfalls
While Stoneman is optimistic about future growth in biopesticides, he knows the industry still suffers from questions of legitimacy.

Biopesticide products have been labeled as overpriced and less effective than conventional products. The entry of more conventional companies into the segment has given biopesticides more clout while also making prices more competitive.

“The cost of our materials to the growers has to come in line with other materials they use or the materials the biopesticide replaces,” Stoneman said.

But the greatest obstacle to faster growth remains a lingering skepticism that biopesticides are just not as effective as conventional products.

Research trials and demonstrations where biopesticides are applied at the same time and using the same equipment as conventional products often put the alternatives at a disadvantage.

Educating extension specialists, crop consultants and farm managers about treating biopesticides like living agents rather than inert compounds has helped overcome that challenge, but more work needs to be done, Stoneman said.

Overall, he is excited about the industry’s prospects thanks to interest in biopesticides along the entire food value chain. “Overall, society would like us to use as soft an approach to pest control as possible. That favors biopesticides.”