The Rise of Ag Bio

Agricultural biologicals are becoming more mainstream in an increasingly eco-friendly industry

By Hermione Wilson

There is an increasing demand among consumers for more sustainable practices in agriculture and less dependence on chemicals to control pests and weeds. Genetically modified crops are one solution, but one that makes a significant per cent of the population very uncomfortable. That might explain why, in the last few years, major biotech companies have been moving to invest in the agricultural biologicals industry.

“You’re seeing an explosion in this space,” says Shawn Semones, Director of BioAg Application Development at Novozymes in Salem, VA. In December 2010, Novozymes began the process of acquiring EMD/Merck Crop BioScience. In 2012 multinational Syngenta announced that it had agreed to acquire U.S.-based Pasteuria Bioscience, a company known for producing biological products to control plant-parasitic nematodes, and later in 2015, Syngenta announced an R&D partnership with DSM “to develop microbial-based agricultural solutions, including bio-controls, bio-pesticides and bio-stimulants,” according to a press release. Also in 2012, Bayer CropScience acquired AgraQuest, a global supplier of biological pest management solutions based on natural microorganisms, and chemical company BASF acquired Becker Underwood, adding biological seed treatment and biological crop protection to its portfolio.

It’s a signal that the agricultural biologicals space is destined to grow, Semones says. As for Novozymes, it invested in the agricultural microbials market in 2013 through a long-term strategic partnership with Monsanto, called the BioAg Alliance.

The Alliance

“Novozymes has a rich history in the areas of microbial discovery and microbial fermentation,” Semones says. “We also brought a portfolio of microbial-based products to the table that spanned across biofertility and biopesticides, and when you couple that with Monsanto’s strengths in the area of field research and regulatory market strategies, it was the right collaboration.”

Novozymes has been in the agricultural sector for more than 10 years with products like Jumpstart, which improves yield in broad acre crops like canola, wheat and corn by mobilizing phosphorous in the soil and making it more available to the plant. The company also has a legume inoculant called Optimize which contains microorganisms that colonize the roots of soybeans and captures nitrogen from the air, turning it into a useful form for the plant.

“[Microbials] is a relatively young area in agriculture,” Semones says. “We’ve been using inoculants for a hundred years, but the science around the inoculants or the microbial space has really started to accelerate over the last 15 to 20 years.” Our increased ability to sequence the genomes of microorganisms has led to the discovery of novel microbes, he says, and allowed us to better understand how these microbes do what they do, and to formulate and stabilize them so that they can be used in agriculture.

“The analytical tools that allow us to understand what the microbes are doing in terms of their metabolome are getting much, much better in terms of precision and resolution,” he says. “We’re getting at tools that track microorganisms and understand what they’re doing when they’re applied to the seed or the soil or the plant.”

The Guard Dog

In Kingsville, ON, Adjuvants Plus is working to register a biofungicide that promises to eradicate fusarium head blight, a disease that mainly affects wheat crops. The company has licensed two strains of a fungal organism called Clonostachys rosea, one it acquired from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the other from the University of Guelph.

Susan Boyetchko, researcher for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, with a colleague.

“[The organisms] have a biocontrol function,” says President and CEO Bill Brown. “The main mode of action is in fact almost benign. It’s what’s called site occupation or food source denial. Once they’re inside of the plant, others have difficulty getting in because they command their food source.”

“They’re a bit like a guard dog,” Brown adds with a laugh. “You get inside the fence and mess with the food dish, it eats you.”

Biological products like Adjuvants Plus’ biofungicide would seem like the perfect fit for the niche organic farming industry, but the company has decided to focus on the large-scale farming industry instead, where the product can have the most benefit. The Clonostachys rosea-derived biofungicide has a long-term effect on microflora, whereas chemical-based pesticides only linger for a few weeks before they dissipate, Brown says. When used as a seed treatment, the biofungicide follows the roots of the plant as it grows. The company is also exploring foliar options, that is, a mode of application that would allow treatment of the leaves of crops after they have been planted.

Once Adjuvants Plus’ biofungicide has been licensed in Canada and the U.S. (currently in talks), it plans to register it in Europe as well. Brown says the product could also be used on corn, canola and other cereal crops.

“Europe is cancelling hundreds of chemicals in the last five to eight years,” Brown says. “Even some of the fungicides that are presently being used, they’re trying to cut those out.” Biofungicides like Clonostachys rosea present a way to replace or at least halve the use of these chemicals in the agricultural industry, Brown says.

“Our goal is to replace 20 or 50 per cent of fungicide use. We know how it works and why it works, because it’s not just a squirt and miss, it’s not [just] there for seven days. If we use it as a seed treatment, it’s in this root zone for the life of the plant.”

Nature’s Way

Not all agricultural biologicals come in neat, sprayable packages. Some biopesticides come in the form of other insects, the natural enemies of crop pests. Others come in the form of microorganisms, bacteria and viruses that kill, suppress and control the crop pest population. It’s all about exploiting nature’s various defense mechanisms, says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist Susan Boyetchko. She thinks it’s a matter of time before biopesticides replace traditional methods of pest control.

“We’re running out of other modes of action, so biologicals really fill that area where we’re trying to find new modes of action,” Boyetchko says. “Basically what we’re doing is using nature’s best, aren’t we?”

Agricultural biologicals could be the solution we’ve been looking for to pesticide resistance, though that is not to say resistance would never occur with biologicals, she says. We haven’t been using them long enough to know for sure.

“We should not be using biopesticides or anything else as a silver bullet to control the pests,” Boyetchko says. Biopesticides should be considered as an additional control method, to be used alongside other pest control methods. “Why don’t we trick it by using different modes of action that are available to us and it can delay the onset of resistance from occurring?” she says.

We are still a long way from replacing traditional pest control methods with biopesticides wholesale, and other biologicals like biocontrol and biofertilizer products are not yet well understood. For now, agricultural biologicals may have the greatest impact on the smaller scale organic farming and high-value fruit and vegetable spheres.

“Biologicals are going to be specific for controlling a specific weed or something, so if you’ve got 20 different weeds in your field then you would need 20 different biologicals probably to control them,” says Murray McLaughlin, President and CEO of Sustainable Chemistry Alliance. “It would just get cost-prohibitive.”

There is also the added challenge, he says, that in Canada it takes longer to get biologicals registered than in the U.S. “They tend to be able to get into the market quicker in the U.S. than here, so a lot of companies just don’t develop them for the Canadian market,” he says.

But are agricultural biologicals sustainable? The answer seems to be an obvious yes, since they are derived from natural sources, but sustainability also involves the ability to reproduce the product, and to package and ship it. And even then, will they be effective when applied to the crops?

The BioAg Alliance is a partnership between Monsanto and Novozymes.

“Biologicals are usually much more difficult to deal with because they usually need some humidity, some of them you can’t spray in high-intensity daylight, you have to spray in the early morning and late in the morning because they’ll break down quicker in high bright sunlight,” McLaughlin says. “There are a lot of challenges compared to dealing with a synthetic material.”

“What makes them tricky is that we’re trying to formulate a living organism,” Boyetchko says. Once you have discovered a microorganism that will be beneficial to crop production, you need to figure out how to make it stable and how to get it to work at a certain time. And just like with chemicals, you have to ensure that biologicals don’t have an adverse effect on the environment, Boyetchko says. They go through the same rigorous testing as synthetic products do.

He points out that biopesticides aren’t the only path to sustainability. It all depends on what you mean by sustainability. “Some of the pesticides that are out there are probably plant extracts that will become chemicals and then you can basically make those chemicals synthetically. Depending on what you use to make them, it could be sustainable as long as those products are something that can be renewed and reused.”

Still, the agricultural biologicals sector is definitely picking up speed and it can only be to the agricultural industry’s benefit. “People who buy food, they’re demanding all the time that we reduce the pesticide residue in our food supply,” Boyetchko says. “This is one way of doing it.”

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