Editor's note: The global agricultural biologicals market was $4.8 Billion (USD) in market revenue value in 2017 and is expected to reach $10.7 Billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 11.5%. Small, medium, and large companies have been increasingly investing in the research and development of biological seed treatment products for agriculture. This segment is gaining further importance by addressing the needs of both growers and society, and thus shows huge market potential, Martin Gruss, Global Head SeedGrowth at Bayer Division Crop Science, told AgroPages in an exclusive interview.
We also learned from the interviews with Ioana Tudor (Global Head of Syngenta Seedcare), Pieter Oosters (Product Manager Microbials at Koppert Biological Systems), and Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira (CEO of Simbiose), and further communication with Martin Gruss that there are a lot of problems to be solved in the development and application of biological seed treatment products, such as selection of microbe strains, product design, formulation development, compatibility with synthetic products, storage, use timing, conditions, shelf life and consistency of performance. Nevertheless, scientific and technical advances in the industry convince us that the biological seed treatment industry will usher in a brighter future.
In your view, what is the current state of development of the biological seed treatment industry?
Global Head SeedGrowth at Bayer Division Crop Science
Global Head of Syngenta Seedcare
Product Manager Microbials at Koppert Biological Systems
Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira
CEO of Simbiose
Pieter Oosters: Search for ‘biological seed treatment’ on Google and you will find dozens of pages with market reports claiming the market is a multibillion market. Looking in practice it’s still a niche market however growing rapidly.
Although the products on the market are still limited, some of the larger seed companies are already starting to include biological seed treatments in their seed treatment package, some of them showing nice effects. This mainly occurs under abiotic stress in poor soils. This type of products is expected to develop further in solutions which are also effective and better substantiated in the more mature markets/fertile soils.
Ioana Tudor: Since the introduction of BT in agriculture we have learned a lot around fermentation and formulation of biologicals. There is today a lot of interest in this space and I believe there will be a great opportunity with biologicals. I don’t see that they will be able to replace chemicals in the short term but they will be more supplemental to our current chemical offers in the market.
Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira: I study all the biological technologies for seed treatments (ST) offered on the world market, and I see that most of them were designed without much study for that purpose, within the context of use in conjunction with other technologies usually used in that country.
There are few companies in the world that actually have biological technologies developed exclusively for the treatment of seeds. Fortunately among these few companies, there are those that have the latest technology for this purpose and still production conditions in scale to meet tens of millions of hectares, thus satisfying the need of the market.
Martin Gruss: While results in the field vary based on several factors, the right combination of synthetic crop protection and microbial seed treatments in corn has resulted in significantly increased yields of up to ten percent over the last decade. Similar benefits in yield have been achieved in the production of soybeans, cotton, and cereal grains. The selected biological treatment can give crops a crucial advantage in a critical time window for establishing yield and can contribute to long-term sustainability in agriculture. For this reason, a multidisciplinary research and development team at Bayer focuses solely on biological solutions. We also count on strengthening our portfolio by forming collaborations with innovative partners. Bayer SeedGrowth™ continues to play a vital part in this development and we strongly believe that by continuously investing in biologicals, we can improve seed treatment and effectively promote sustainable agriculture.
Overall the industry has seen a tremendous growth in market demand and acceptance in the last few years. At the same time the rapidly evolving technology landscape and heterogeneous regulatory environment created some uncertainties with growers. Companies like Bayer with strong R&D capabilities, global outreach and innovative, thoroughly tested and fieldproven products can help to alleviate those concerns and offer differentiating solutions to agriculture and society.
What are the difficulties in the research and development phase of biological seed treatment products, and what are the challenges in practical applications?
Martin Gruss: The plant rhizosphere and the multidimensional interaction between microbes, soil and plants is extremely complex and has developed over millions of years. Therefore it is a challenge to transfer positive results from a laboratory or greenhouse environment to the field under varying climatic and soil conditions and to ensure that growers get the trusted performance they expect. If you asked one of our field technicians he would likely respond that the solutions aren’t easy – you can’t simply take a biological product, apply it to a seed or on the field, and hope it will work, as the results are likely to be disappointing. You have to study numerous interactions between the biological product, the plant, and the environment. The key to success is to use biological products in the right way!
We do not want to develop biologicals as niche products that only show effects in a specific geographic region under narrowly limited conditions. In an ideal world, candidates demonstrate benefits on a wide range of crops and different regions and agricultural practices. But this continues to be one of the main hurdles for the practical applicability of biological seed treatments: Predicting and addressing the sheer variability of different environments (e. g., soils, weather, abiotic and biotic stresses), of the plant response mechanisms based on variety and genetic traits and ultimately the biological product used.
This complexity is amplified by the interaction between beneficial and detrimental microbes in the soil – an area that is still being explored both in academia and the industry. There may be cases and conditions suitable for beneficial microbes showing significant benefits (e. g., quick and complete emergence, vigorous plants) – however the same location and soil may not yield likewise a year later.
Finally, another relevant challenge for the practical application of biological seed treatments is shelf-life on-the-seed and compatibility with other seed treatment components such as synthetic fungicides or insecticides, micronutrients or additional microbes such as inoculants.
As agricultural productivity must be raised, the focus of our research activities at Bayer is increasingly on boosting yields. By providing suitable seed treatment products, we are pursuing our goal of strengthening plants from the very start. That way, they can successfully cope not only with pests and diseases, but also with unfavorable environmental conditions such as stress and nutrientpoor soils.
Ioana Tudor: The major difficulties are that most of the current biologicals in the market are quite narrow in spectrum and often are quite sensitive to soil and environmental conditions. Not many can be used across territories around the world like a chemical – therefore, the development and commercialization process needs to be quite localized. Often you will see a product specific in one country.
Challenges in applications are that they often are not quite stable on the seed and may lose efficacy over time so if you treat your seed a few weeks before planting they may not be efficacious anymore. Finally, they often are not compatible with chemicals, which is a major hurdle for seed treatments where we now want to load on a seed multiple chemical active ingredients in the same recipe and biologicals need to come on top of that. For these reasons, Syngenta Seedcare has chosen a partnering strategy in biologicals – we work with many companies in the R&D space and those innovations that have a good fit with our portfolio we can rapidly take them through commercialization through our broad platform.
Pieter Oosters: Challenge within the R&D development phase is that you can spend your time and capacity only once. You have to define the right set of crop, disease and region. Based on the product combination you have to do numerous tests. Because most seed treatments are meant for outdoor crops this means multiple years of trialing before a product is finally fully validated and a dossier can be send in for registration. Shelf life of biologicals is a key issue and therefore a focus area where Koppert is working on and making progress.
Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira: The difficulties that we find for the good development of this technology are:
* Options for substances of organic origin, or even synthetic, suitable for composing formulations of biological products.
* Professionals with knowledge in formulations of biological products.
* Adequate legislation for organic products.
How can one ensure consistency in the effectiveness of biological seed treatment products? How can the product be adapted to various application environments and conditions?
Ioana Tudor: Improvement in fermentation process to assure high quality products and application closer to planting to ensure viability of the organisms in the product. And, as I mentioned earlier, we might need to develop localized solutions that fit specific environmental conditions rather than seeking a product to be deployed broadly across many geographies.
Pieter Oosters: Understanding the working mechanism is key in developing a good and broadly applicable solution. More and more of our trials show the different effects on cultivar level. This means a certain biological can react differently on a certain variety although the other variables like soil, humidity, temperature and sunlight are exactly the same.
Working together with several of the leading seed breeders in the market helps to understand the working mechanisms of their cultivars. Constantly looking for the right match before working further on formulating a certain solution.
Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira: Most of the technologies offered for seed treatment were not designed for this, thus bringing disastrous consequences to the producer and the biological segment.
To ensure the effectiveness of a biological technology whether it is for seed treatment or for what purpose, we begin with the rigor and criteria in the selection of the isolate organism to be used for product development.
We must know how it will be applied to seeds, under which soil conditions, humidity, temperature, and whether or not it will be associated with some other technology in the seed treatment.
After listing the need for the characteristics of the product to be developed, the research begins to transfer all the desired items to the biological product to effectively meet the purpose for which it was designed.
The good result in the different edaphoclimatic conditions depends on a previous study at the field level, always understanding the context to which it will be used, and thus being able to recommend the best form or dose of the product.
Martin Gruss: For researchers, soil remains a fascinating reservoir, packed with tiny microbes with a big impact on sustainable agriculture. To offer growers high consistency in performance we invest significant resources and time throughout the development cycle of a new biological seed treatment and test it thoroughly in the laboratory, our greenhouses and ultimately in the field.
We work on finding out more about the symbiotic relationships between plants and microbes by employing state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to analyze field trials in a novel way. The goal is to identify potential major agronomic factors influencing microbial field performance that Bayer researchers can then utilize to develop biological seed treatment adapted to various environments. Our Bayer experts research the preferred strains of microbe to apply during seed treatment by various selections (computer- and biological-based), strain improvement and fermentation processes to obtain ideal and stable spore number, vigor and performance. Then, years of research go into developing a final seed treatment product and finding the optimum composition of all formulation ingredients. The biological seed treatment can be combined with synthetic crop protection agents to ward off other insects and diseases but this combination requires a very broad set of scientific know-how and skills and excellent stewardship from manufacturing to transport, storage and application.
As pointed out earlier, the adoption of products to various application environments and conditions requires considerable time and effort in research and development, and specific use patterns can only be concluded after several years of field trials. We do this by adapting field testing to different production environments and having multiple seasons with enough repetitions to avoid distortion from large variations in data. One of the biggest innovations in recent years is how we can use spatial data – provided by digital tools – to break the raw numbers into smaller data sets to better understand what factors drive performance in the field. Those efforts are supported by modern Research and Developments tools to demonstrate consistency of the performance in the field under agronomic conditions.
Of course, another major part - as mentioned earlier - is developing enabling technologies to ensure compatibility and stability of the microbe with the integrated, customized solution for the grower.
What new technologies have emerged in this field in the past few years? Does your company have any new products?
Martin Gruss: The level of scientific work in biologicals has accelerated rapidly in recent decades. Companies are applying cutting-edge research techniques from pharmaceutical and other research-driven industries to understand, optimize, and deliver biological products to farmers around the globe. Major improvements in efficacy, storability, and applicability are some of the fruits of these investments.
As an R&D leader in agricultural biologicals Bayer researchers are now able to provide new solutions to growers by harnessing beneficial bacteria: Proteins and enzymes can improve plant health, increase yields, and protect plants against pests or diseases but they are normally unstable or easily degraded in agricultural settings. The use of optimized and stabilized microbes could be an important step to help feed the growing world population, as the right microbes can make naturally resourcelimited land more productive.
Bayer is partnering with private and public institutions to advance understanding of the soil microbiome and identifying beneficial microbial strains from different environments across the world. In addition we are engaged in the evaluation of new technologies in the microbial space like synthetic biology. To that end, in 2017 Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks founded a new company (Joyn Bio) which will focus at first on improving microbes' ability to provide crops their nitrogen requirements, offering major benefits for sustainable agriculture by reducing the need for additional synthetic fertilizers. Startup companies in the biological space enrich the entire industry with their innovative approaches.
Bayer has a strong track-record of developing and commercializing innovative biological seed treatments and with our strong R&D pipeline we will continue to launch new tools to support our customers around the world.
Ioana Tudor: Syngenta has launched CLARIVA® that is a biological seed applied nematicide for cyst nematodes which we currently sell in the U.S., Canada and Brazil. It is the only biological nematicide in the market today that gets in direct contact with the nematode and kills it. In addition, under our EPIVIO™ umbrella brand for Abiotic Stress Management we sell a number of seed applied biologicals which are compatible with our Seedcare portfolio.
Pieter Oosters: Some of the bigger companies have started to put basic biological seed treatment in their package. Koppert has a long experience in producing beneficial biologicals with unique characteristics at an industrial scale. Concerning seed treatment, this has led to several partnerships aiming to contribute to the availability of high quality biological seed treatment options worldwide.
Under the Koppert brand, Koppert has launched Panoramix as their first commercial seed treatment a couple of years ago. Working as a stimulant, this multispecies product enables the full growth potential of cereal, soya and corn seed. It contains among other ingredients Bacillus, Trichoderma, Endomycorrhiza strains and a set of useful additives such as vitamins, fulvic and humic acids.
Panoramix has been developed as a seed treatment product for onfarm use or for application by specialized companies such as farmers’ cooperatives. For the best results with regard to the quality of the microorganisms, the seeds should be sown immediately after treatment.
Koppert also produces and markets a set of Pseudomonas strains. Currently Koppert markets the products of Cerall and Cedomon in order to offer an effective disinfection on cereal against seed-borne fungi, such as Fusarium, Tilletia caries, and Septoria nodorum. For now this product is focused on the European market.
At this moment Koppert is working on a specific seed treatment formulation of one of their Trichoderma strains. The soil applied Trianum and Trichodermil product which they sell already give them the experience how these strains can be best applied. Initially Koppert takes lettuce, soya and corn as their focus crops in order to offer a bio fungicidal seed treatment which can equal the effect obtained with chemical fungicides. In order to guarantee efficacy in effect as well as application (such as on seed survival) Koppert does this in collaboration with third parties in order to have the carrier tailored to the active substance.
Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira: Simbiose is recognized not only for the broad and qualified portfolio of biological products, but also for maintaining constant research in the development of new solutions.
The latest solutions developed for the treatment of seeds are:
Simbiose Nod - Inoculants based on nitrogen fixing bacteria for all legumes;
Simbiose Mays - inoculant based on nitrogen fixing bacteria and plant growth promoters, for grasses;
StimuControl - Biofungicide based on fungus for the control of the main soil pathogens;
NemaControl - Nematicide based on bacteria for the control of major nematodes.
Simbiose is expected to launch six new biological products for seed treatment in the world market over the next three years. These Technologies will certainly win the attention of the producers.
How do you view the future of the biological seed treatment industry?
Ioana Tudor: Great opportunity and still a lot to learn. I believe we will improve significantly over the next decade and more products will be available to the growers. There are two external market factors that will continue to favour acceleration of biological offers in the market: 1) for biocontrols - in Europe, with significant regulatory restrictions on chemicals there are market gaps that biologicals could cover even if efficacy is less than what chemicals were able to provide in the past, and, 2) for biostimulants, there is significant demand from our customers - high interest for products, stabilizing or enhancing yield under different abiotic stresses.
A challenge that we deal with today and hopefully will get more clarity on in the future, is the regulatory landscape since there are still a lot of inconsistent views on how products like these need to be registered and requirements vary greatly from one country to another.
Pieter Oosters: Koppert sees a bright future concerning biological seed treatment. More and more techniques occur to work with nature in order to get the best crop stance and plant protection. It used to be that seed treatment mainly consisted of a polymer coating and chemical fungicides plus insecticide. This to protect the plant in its early stage of development. Koppert experiences that several chemical fungicides are showing decreasing efficacy and some are banished already or are expected to be banished in the near future. Biologicals therefore have an important gap to close. Looking at the current developments, the biostimulants have started to conquer position in the market. This type of products is preparing the market for more sophisticated microbial plant protection products which not only have a proven effect as biological fungicide, nematicide or insecticide but also enhances germination and further growth at the same time.
Marcelo de Godoy Oliveira: I believe that the treatments will be divided in some formats, the first one will be kept from the already known and usual, treatment of seeds made on the farm, the other has already been implanted a few years ago, which is the treatment of Industrial seeds, where the producer acquires the seeds with all the biological treatments, and the third and last one that I believe to be the most technically advisable for the volume of biological technologies used, will be the use of equipment that is coupled to the planters so that at the moment of the planting injects the biological products in the groove with the seeds.
Simbiose is technologically prepared for all three forms.
In the last two years we have invested in an innovative project where we developed an exclusive equipment for the application of organic products in the planting groove, without restricting the volume of the syrup, applying where the product should be (close to the seeds) keeping during the application the microorganisms 100% viable, being more practical, fast and rational.
Martin Gruss: The biological seed treatment industry will grow significantly in importance amid an ever more challenging regulatory environment for both synthetic and biotechnology solutions and the growing emphasis on sustainability for our industry and society overall. Precision farming and advanced digital offerings based on solid data science insights also will enable more targeted farming practices and biological seed treatments offer great promise as an important building block in those tailored solutions.
Biological seed treatments possess diverse metabolic capabilities with broad applicability such as nutrient assimilation, bio-enhancement or bio-control, inoculation and signaling technologies. Advances in big data analysis, scenario modelling and computational life sciences are envisioned to further accelerate the development speed as well as increasing consistency and performance under complex field conditions.
Scientific and technical advances in the industry such as metagenomics and microbiome science, as well as genome editing, will open new areas of innovation and push the current boundaries for yield as well as plant and soil health and quality. In this context we are expecting to see the use of different modes of action or yield components and stronger integration with specific crop varieties and genetic traits as well as progress in the area of stabilizing gram negative microbes.
We know that consumers are increasingly interested in how their food is grown and want to know that farming practices are environmentally sustainable. Biological seed treatments already play a role in helping farmers reduce their CO2 emissions and can help their crops use fertilizer more efficiently. We believe that these products can complement conventional synthetic seed treatments so farmers can have more bountiful harvests and do so in an environmentally sustainable way.
Therefore we continue to see high growth potential for biological seed treatments, especially if regulators globally are able to achieve more consistency and harmonized standards.
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