December 4-5, 2024

Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa
Monterey, CA


Biologicals Poised for Significant Growth Despite Challenges

As regulations continue to restrict the use of synthetic chemicals around the world, biologicals will become an increasingly popular ag tool, said a panel of experts at the Organic Grower Summit (OGS) in Monterey, CA, last month.

Moderated by Dennis Donohue, director of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, the “Less Chemistry and More Biology” ed session included three panelists: Pam Marrone, advisor for Biocerces Crop Solutions; Don Cameron, vice president/general manager for Terranova Ranch; and Denise Manker, outreach and engagement, biologics, Bayer Crop Science. 

Marrone, a biologicals expert who has founded multiple companies (including AgraQuest, Entotech, and Marrone Bio Innovations), said there are numerous reasons for growers to prioritize the use of biologicals.

“Number one, when you incorporate biologicals into the program, you can see better return on investment,” she said. “Number two, you can improve soil health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve biodiversity, manage your residues, and manage resistance to other products.” She also added that biologicals help address the current pressure from consumers and the retail food industry to reduce synthetic chemistry.

“Biologicals are growing at double digits,” Marrone continued. “Chemicals are growing at single digits. If you do the math, in 20 years, the biologicals market size will exceed the chemical size. Indeed, this morning [November 30], it was announced that Corteva bought Stoller. … So big guys are getting into this as well.”

Manker, who has worked in biologics at Bayer Crop Science for the past decade, said that while the company currently has “a very large chemical division and a small biologics division,” this is in the process of changing.

“They absolutely see the writing on the wall,” she said. “They've invested almost probably a billion over time into this area. And they see, due to regulatory pressures, we don't have options in Europe now. I mean it's really changing around the world—and this is the future.”

While the panel agreed that biologicals will play an increasingly important role in agriculture going forward, they cited a number of challenges facing the input class.

Cameron, a longtime organic and conventional grower of a wide variety of crops, said that biologicals don’t have the best reputation in the grower community, citing efficacy issues as well as added requirements like refrigeration that make them harder to use.

“Biologicals get a bad rap,” echoed Marrone later on in the panel, noting that growers tend to believe chemicals are more effective.

The panelists all agreed that more education and extension is needed when it comes to the category.

“You've got to get [biologicals] in the hands of growers, and you have to give them an education. I mean you really have to have the technical assistance to go with these to make them work properly,” said Cameron, who noted that there are currently efforts underway to improve education and extension for the input class.

Manker also cited cost as a challenge—"making biologicals is a more expensive process than the synthetic chemistry”—but noted that with advances in technology, product prices should come down.

Another major issue for the biologicals category is the testing paradigm. Both Marrone and Manker said companies and regulatory agencies tend to take the same approach to trialing biologicals as synthetic chemicals, which doesn’t make sense.

“To get a registration, you have to have standalone data with a biological, and that is not how they perform well. You can get enough data that you can get a registration most of the time, but really these products work in systems,” Manker said. “Over my career, I've seen basically they're testing them as if they're synthetic systemic chemistry, and they don't work that way. And so this is why we need to have a different approach to supporting growers with extension, with programs that can test them in real conditions and show the value of the biologicals.”

Both Cameron and Marrone mentioned that such on-farm testing is currently in the works. “We now have funding from Western Growers and the Almond Board to move forward with trials of biologicals starting in 2023,” said Cameron. “And these are going to be on-farm trials with growers. And we're going to start trialing some of these products that are out there and check effectiveness and really see how it looks … because I think that's been lacking. … As Pam said, growers are really not real familiar with biologicals.”

Another one of the major hurdles facing the biologicals industry is the length of time involved in the regulatory process.

“On the regulatory side, the US has slowed down,” Marrone said. “In the last nine years, Brazil has registered more biologicals than the US has in 30-plus years. So we need to get back on track with the US EPA.”

“California,” she said, addressing the state directly, “if you're going to take products off the market, then you better have those alternatives available, and it takes too long to get them approved.”

Cameron agreed. He said that the California Sustainable Pest Management Group, of which both he and Marrone are members, has recommended that the California Department of Pest Regulation speed up the regulatory process—especially for biologicals. He said it’s important for growers to start trying out new products since some chemical pesticides will be targeted for elimination in the near future.