May. 25, 2017
As the choice and variety of active substances dwindles, formulation chemists are finding themselves cast into the front line—plant protection product manufacturers, from the biggest to the smallest, are increasingly focusing on formulation as a point of differentiation.
Richard Youngman, head of Global Marketing for Lonza Agro Ingredients, examines recent trends in agrochemical formulation strategies and offers an insight into why formulation has become such a hot topic.
Agrochemical formulation is at last getting the attention it deserves, but it’s been a long time coming.
While acknowledging that formulation plays an essential role in achieving the successful delivery and biological activity of any plant protection product, and ensuring its safety and convenience in use, only within the last decade or so have the simple formulations of the past, the abbreviations we’re all so familiar with—simple water solutions (SL), emulsifiable concentrates (EC) and wettable powders (WP)—given way to the more exacting, high-tech developments of oil-dispersion (OD), oil-in-water emulsions (EW) and suspension emulsions (SE).
These developments are due in part to progress in novel chemistry which require more advanced formulation technology and also to increased regulations concerning operator and environmental safety. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) so prevalent in EC formulations of 30 years ago were not only unpopular with users, but increasingly difficult to justify on environmental grounds. The quest for newer, better, formulations is to be welcomed.
But there’s another significant driver. Although the value of the global crop protection market continues to grow (most sources agree on approximately US$50 billion in 2016). Future growth is attributed mainly to a general increase in sales. By contrast, the introduction of novel molecules has slowed over the past decade, as barriers to entry—largely regulatory—grow higher and development costs escalate.
However, the innovation for which the plant protection industry is renowned, lives on. Formulation technology is the new battleground. Refreshed formulations, offering improved efficiency, a regulatory advantage over competitors or simply a point of differentiation in a still crowded marketplace, in a still crowded marketplace, gives companies a prime opportunity to make further improvements and meet new challenges to their products in which they have already invested in which they have invested millions of dollars in technical studies, regulatory support and marketing collateral.
At the same time, this investment in reformulation gives companies specializing in post-patent chemistry an important, valuable point of differentiation. Far less expensive than developing and registering new chemistry of active substances, reformulation presents a much more accessible entry into the market, with presentation of a molecule that’s already likely to be well-known amongst end-users, and for which technical understanding is already widespread. Furthermore, advances in formulation technology have also allowed chemists to develop co-formulations of two or more active substances, which previously were considered incompatible in a single product.
Global crop protection has, until now, focused almost exclusively on synthetic chemicals— organic chemistry, derived from oil. Now, regulatory pressures to identify and commercialize alternative forms of crop protection, such as bio-pesticides, or fermented products, have boosted demand for additional formulation types.
These present further challenges: compatibility with the active biological compounds or organisms within bio-based products. Formulation chemists would ignore this market at their peril: bio-pesticides are expected to account for nearly $9 billion of the global crop protection market within five years.
If innovation drives formulation, then there’s a good argument that formulation drives production. What works well in theory, or in small-scale sample production runs, is not always scalable to full-scale commercial production. Compromise is often necessary, with cost, time, yield and practicality being the common defining factors.
Equally, reformulation can bring production benefits: new formulation techniques and ingredients, such as combining polymers with surfactants, can improve both the end formulation and the process. These new formulation techniques need not be sourced from the agrochemical industry alone; the value of technology transfer from formulation developments in other industries, and the introduction of new inert substances, is often overlooked.
It’s this combination of Lonza’s formulation expertise, manufacturing knowledge and exposure to other industries besides crop protection that lies behind the recent decision to establish a new business within its Agro Ingredients unit. Lonza has already established itself as a key supplier to a wide range of formulation customers, thanks to its widely known PROXEL® range of preservatives. Now VELCIS®, the new umbrella brand, will build on and enhance its long-established reputation as a manufacturing and development partner for the plant protection industry, where the defining elements are experience, trust and quality.
Lonza believes plant protection manufacturers, whether one of the global giants, or a regional big-hitter, face some difficult challenges in the years ahead. The slowdown in identifying new active substances makes the traditional product development pipeline available only to those companies with deep reserves, while the general move towards new formulation techniques will place added pressure on those whose product portfolio is reliant on older formulations of generic chemistry.
Then there’s the ‘great unknown’ of bio-pesticides. Recent acquisitions, partnerships and press releases indicate that most of the Big Five intend to develop such products, regulatory differences between global markets, the United States and the European Union, for example, leave unanswered questions, ambiguity and legislative uncertainty.
Adopting the VELCIS brand allows Lonza to bring together all the tools necessary for success, its in-house manufacturing facility, regulatory know-how, and market experience, to help manufacturers not only keep pace with new trends in formulation, but also to assist them in developing specific inert formulation ingredients that can deliver differentiation, improve efficiency, or present a lower environmental profile.
The crop protection industry has always been defined by innovation. Formulation may be a different beneficiary of that innovation, but it’s one that’s no less deserving of our attention.
® PROXEL and VELCIS are registered trademarks of Lonza. All other trademarks acknowledged.
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