Hone Your IPM Skills in the New Biologicals Paradigm
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in AgriBusiness Global’s May/June print magazine. We now also distribute the magazine digitally for added circulation and convenience. Preview the digital edition here.
In describing the new, more evolved era of biopesticides we are in today, Mike Dimock, Vice President, Field Development and Tech Services with Certis USA, captures it well.
“As much as the challenge is learning how to use biopesticides, it’s also learning how to sell them, because these are not things that are going to be successful in the old paradigm of standalone products and standalone performance.”
Certis was formed in 2001 when Mitsui & Co. purchased the assets of Thermo Trilogy Corp. As many of its competitors have done, it has since expanded far beyond its U.S. base to a slew of international markets beyond North America.
In the old paradigm, biologicals were pigeonholed into organic and specialty crops. In the new paradigm, synthetics and biologicals are combined in integrated pest management (IPM) programs — and more so now than ever in conventional agriculture and broadacre crops. Marrone Bio Innovations, a top U.S. biopesticides player, counts conventional as 75% of its business versus 25% organic, and the same is true of the rest of the industry, Founder and CEO Pam Marrone tells AgriBusiness Global™.
“Everybody says, ‘What?!’ And I say, ‘Well, yeah.’ Organic is the fastest-growing segment of food, but it’s still small,” says Marrone, who founded her company in Davis, California, in 2006.
Chrissie Davis, a 16-year veteran of Koppert Biological Systems, where she is Account Manager for Northern California, describes “exponential growth” experienced by her company internationally and in California. Koppert ships microbial products, bumblebees and hive systems, and dozens of beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps and predaceous mites to 90 countries.
“It used to be that the grower would consciously decide to grow safer food. Now grocery stores are deciding for them: ‘I’m Safeway, and I’m not going to buy your tomatoes unless you do it this way.’ I went to the Organic Growers Summit in Monterey, and they had all of these time slots for growers to meet with Costco.”
While many existing IPM programs remain outdated, this is changing. Producers, predominately still in the high-value fruit and vegetable markets, are becoming more aware of their options for maximum residue limit (MRL) management, as many biopesticides are exempt from residue tolerances. A huge incentive lies in diversifying modes of action to reduce the risk of resistance and extending the life of synthetic tools, which are being taken away faster than they’re being replaced.
Marrone recommends a transition time period, during which integrated programs with biopesticides are developed and demonstrated on farm with growers, so that by the third year, growers are comfortable with incorporating alternatives.
Channel partners also reap the benefits of the integrated strategy. “It’s an add-on, and they can give the grower a better bottom line,” Marrone points out.
She offers real-world uses of pairing conventional and biopesticides, such as in the case of fighting navel orangeworm, an increasingly common almond pest that causes an estimated revenue loss to the farmer of $1,700 per acre, according to a 2018 study by Blue Diamond Growers. “Chemicals are not giving complete control, so the growers get docked because they get these little nicks on an almond. (Producers) are also trying to get rid of pyrethroids,” catering to buyers’ preferences, she says.
Marrone’s Venerate XC or Grandevo WDG bioinsecticide is added to the tank with Altacor (FMC) or Minecto Pro (Syngenta), two reduced-risk synthetic options. “By adding these biological products, we were able to take the control of navel orangeworm from 50% to 60% to closer to 80% to 90% (in demos). It was a real win, how you could mix the two together and get better control, so that’s pretty exciting.”
Koppert’s Davis, who works with an 80/20 mix of conventional and organic producers, helps each of them develop a customized IPM program. “I start with a monitoring program to find out how many good bugs and how many bad bugs they have. Then I give them a recommendation on how many good bugs to apply to try to balance it. My job is more to teach preventive control — to build up the good bugs and ecosystem over a period of time.”
She walks the fields and logs pest pressure — 15 spider mites found on 10 leaves, for example — in her cellphone, which is then uploaded to Koppert’s IPM software. “This helps me to decide, are we going to apply good bugs or are we going to spray? We develop an IPM system based on the monitoring information,” she says.
Since California strawberries are an annual crop, it is more difficult to build up an ecosystem than on, say, an orchard. Her recommendation may mean applying predatory mites from January through March to control the key pest, spider mites. Once primary pests are controlled, the next plan of attack is secondary pests — whitefly, aphid, Lygus, caterpillar — that come in spring to summer. “In those cases sometimes we can apply a beneficial or biopesticide. Or if it’s a conventional grower, we would apply a selective pesticide that would kill aphids but not kill the predaceous mites or parasitic wasps that are attacking the aphids,” she explains.
Use of beneficial insects can also mitigate residue issues for markets with strict import tolerances, such as Japan. If it’s a raspberry crop, a producer might have to wait 40 days to harvest after spraying a miticide such as Acramite (Arysta LifeScience), which is compatible with Koppert’s mite products. “My opportunity is if I do two additional applications of good bugs, there is zero residue. Forty days is a long time to wait, when you can harvest the same day if you apply beneficials,” Davis says.
Certis’ LifeGard WG, rolled out to the market last year, is a biological plant activator that tricks the plant into thinking it’s under attack, switching on its natural defense mechanisms in a process known as induced resistance.
But will an early warning system for a plant mean disease is never going to show up?
“If you’re lucky, and it’s a low disease year, it may be enough, but in most cases you’re going to have to use it as a base to improve the performance of other tactics at your disposal,” including standard fungicides, Dimock explains.
In 2018 Vestaron launched its Spear peptide bioinsecticide line, which provides an alternative in which insects have developed resistance, particularly to spinosad, and works alongside synthetics. The Insect Resistance Action Committee (IRAC) has approved a novel “nerve and muscular” mode-of-action code for the Spear product.
Its peptides are unique, explains Dr. Bob Kennedy, Vestaron Chief Science Officer, as they are smaller than classic proteins and more stable: “For example, a Bt product is degraded by sunlight in the field and may have a half-life of one to three days, whereas we have seen activity of our product out to 10 days. So, our peptide is stable enough to have efficacy over the one-week spray interval that many growers use.”
“By having the safety of a biological with the efficacy of synthetics, it puts us in a good spot to give that grower a lot of flexibility when they rotate it into their IPM program,” adds Ben Cicora, Vestaron’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “With a zero-day preharvest interval, if you’re growing vegetables in the field and have to get to market next day, you can spray, clear out the insect flare-up, and get the vegetables to the market.”
To highlight a real-world use: Spear-Lep is used in rotation with synthetics like Delegate (Corteva Agriscience) and Coragen (FMC) to fight diamondback moth in cole crops in Florida.
Europe and Brazil Challenges
Vestaron’s Spear-T and Spear-LEP have both received EPA registrations, and the company is doing pre-regulatory work in Brazil and Europe. We asked Cicora and Kennedy about the challenges within those markets.
“As you look at Europe and the dramatic changes that are going on in the biopesticide market, you have countries like France that are driving toward no synthetics by 2025. Our technology allows for safety and the continued efficacy that they are used to seeing with synthetics,” Cicora says. “One thing we’re able to hang our hat on is that we received a novel new mode of action. That’s a big deal for growers because, with a lot of biopesticides, if you look at their IRAC mode of action, it will say ‘N/A,’ which means they don’t know what the mode of action is.” That uncertainty makes it that much more difficult for growers to develop an IPM program, he adds.
For Brazil, the main challenges, Cicora says, are market access and educating the channel about the technology.
“I think it will continue to evolve at a fairly rapid pace as we go forward, just because of the amount of interest from companies to do business in Brazil, and I think from (demand from) the Brazilian grower, who is looking for new technologies.”
Like Vestaron, Marrone Bio Innovations is also endeavoring into international markets, including the European Union, where Venerate, according to Marrone, is the first product to be reviewed under the Green Products Initiative, which aims to speed up the European regulatory process.
The initiative, she says, “started because growers in the Netherlands got fed up that they were losing so many products … The EU keeps eliminating chemicals — they just banned chlorothalonil. But they are slow in accelerating alternatives,” she says. The initiative is still more cumbersome and requires more data than the U.S. process, she says, but she is satisfied that progress is being made.
Her company is also setting sights on Brazil, where it will submit registrations for Grandevo and Venerate this year. “Brazil is embracing biologicals like no other place,” she says, noting that the Brazilian Association of Biological Control Companies (ABCBio) reported a 77% jump in biopesticide sales in 2018 to $118.3 million. “They got widespread resistance to Helicoverpa and started using biologicals. Now, they’re learning how to use them in an integrated fashion.”
Dr. Mark Trimmer, Managing Partner at DunhamTrimmer, a biologicals research firm, sees Latin America’s biopesticides growth in the neighborhood of 18%, driven largely by Mexico and Brazil.
Trimmer explains that Brazil has not only attracted significant investments from foreign companies like Valagro, Biolchim, and Koppert, but it also has a range of local producers making a push into biologicals and developing aerial applications (drones or fixed-wing aircraft) to release beneficial insect predators into row crops. “I think the biggest thing we’re going to see happening in the next 10 years is increased penetration (of biologicals) in row crops, particularly in Latin America,” he says.
India, China Face Obstacles
There would be no evolution of the biopesticides market without more sophisticated manufacturing and formulation methods.
“Some of older products years ago were not much more than stuff right out of the fermenter or out of the production process. Companies have gotten better at producing shelf-stable and user-friendly formulations that can go through a sprayer and can do the job. Growers and applicators have also gotten better at using them and are better educated on what they can and can’t do,” Dimock says.
Most in developed ag markets are using more rational strategies instead of turning to biologicals as a rescue, which is likely to lead to disappointment, he acknowledges.
But these more basic developments in product quality, efficacy, and user education have not yet advanced to the levels of Europe or the Americas in places like India or China.
A big topic of meetings Marrone has attended recently in India and China: fraudulent products, both of chemicals and biologicals. “We had players in the room who were selling microbes that are dead. They are supposed to be alive. They are promising a certain number of colonies per gram, and there is poor quality and no IP (intellectual property) protection,” she says, adding, “I think that’s why Brazil and Latin America are exploding so much. We’re also seeing fast growth in Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador because you can get registration through reasonably quickly compared to China or Europe or India, and the product quality is more reputable.”
Earlier in 2019 India created a new biologicals industry coalition analogous to the Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA) in the United States.
“The companies in the room stood up and said, ‘We need a coalition of companies that cleans up our act and does both awareness building and focusing on standards,’” Marrone recalls of her meeting in India in February. “I think it will help. Brazil has had ABCBio for some years, and I think that’s really helped to improve efficiency and speed of regulations and to require member companies to adhere to quality standards.”
China, however, has yet to form a coalition, and while it lacks a clear regulatory framework, Marrone is optimistic that will change.