Biologicals: the next agricultural technology revolution
Apr. 8, 2021
Biological agricultural products (“biologicals”) will eventually replace chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the $240 billion crop protection and fertilizer market (see this author’s previous article on the future of chemical pesticides) (1).
Biologicals will revolutionize agriculture by creating a resurgence of residential beneficials and triggering the beneficials themselves to control pests, diseases, and weeds, while also making crops more resistant to abiotic crop stresses (e.g., heat, drought, and climate change effects).
All stakeholders will benefit from the widespread adoption of biologicals: consumers will enjoy increased access to sustainably grown food, farmers will have access to better tools and new income streams, and the industry will gain a sustainable pipeline of new biologicals.
Decades of adverse agricultural practices and chemical pesticide use have depleted the supply of natural beneficials. Beneficials are organisms that benefit the growth of crops and include insects, microorganisms, and plants. Beneficials provide pest control and pollination, and they encourage crop resilience and soil health.
Biologicals are tools for the sustainable agriculture of the future, because they are not only safe for beneficials but can also trigger the beneficials themselves to protect crops. Biologicals are a class of agricultural products that include biopesticides, biofertilizers, and biostimulants that are derived from natural materials, such as animals, plants, bacteria, or minerals.
Among biologicals, biopesticide products in particular have enjoyed widespread adoption. They also have the most potential to contribute to a reinvigoration of beneficials and thereby lay a foundation for further innovations utilizing other biologicals. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biopesticides include naturally occurring substances and microorganisms that control pests and pesticidal substances produced by plants containing added genetic material (plant-incorporated protectants).
The widespread use of biopesticides instead of chemical pesticides will lead to a resurgence in the health and diversity of the beneficials in agricultural areas. This resurgence of beneficials will support a range of biological innovations reliant on a healthy and diverse population of residential beneficials (e.g. microbiome, arthropods, and pollinators).
2. Benefits of Biopesticides
Biopesticides have many advantages over chemical pesticides. For farmers, biopesticides are attractive because they facilitate integrated pest management (IPM) (2) and protect beneficial organisms, including pollinators. They are also an important tool for resistance management, offer advantageous labor and harvest flexibility, and have very low toxicity. For consumers, biopesticides reduce the risk of residue issues, satisfy the public demand for a more favorable ecological footprint, and reduce the use of more toxic chemical pesticides. For the agricultural industry, biopesticides can be cheaper and faster to develop and to register than new chemical crop-protection active ingredients. In addition, the introduction of biopesticides provides the industry with a potential pipeline of products to replace existing chemical crop-protection products that are no longer competitive due either to resistance issues or because of patent expiry, which allows generic companies to copy and sell a product at a reduced price. Biopesticides are also a tool for introducing other biologicals to additional existing markets (e.g., organic farming) and to potential larger markets that will grow as a result of the use of biopesticides (e.g., biofertilizers, biostimulants, microbiome, probiotics, inoculants, organic fertilizers, and green manure).
One additional benefit of biopesticides is their versatility and potential, as illustrated by the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Researchers have discovered Bt varieties that are active against pests from lepidoptera, coleoptera, and diptera. Additional varieties also suppress diseases and promote crop growth as an endophyte (3). More than 1 billion acres have been planted using insect-resistant crops genetically engineered with Bt (4). Although advancements in Bt took 2-3 decades to develop, improvements in development processes will enable the achievement of similar advancements with other microbes in only a few years.
3. Biopesticides Face Challenges
In light of the extensive benefits of biopesticides, why have these products not already surpassed chemical pesticides in market share? Despite recent progress, biopesticides face several major challenges, including lower efficacy and a lack of suitable application technologies.
Efficacy is Inferior to that of Chemicals, but is Improving Rapidly
The lower efficacy of biopesticides is due in part to inferior active ingredients but is also due to the suboptimal usage recommendations and lack of knowledge available when the products were launched (5).
The R&D budget for trials of a new biopesticide product is generally less than 10% of the $50 million spent on trials for a chemical product (6). As a result, companies have a less detailed understanding of biologicals, which results in inferior use recommendations and reduced effectiveness at launch. In addition, biopesticide trials are often flawed: products were initially tested in artificial systems with sterile soils, small plants, and very high loads of disease spores and pests. To properly assess the full potential of a biopesticide, testing must reflect the effects of real-world conditions on the target crops. Improper testing methods are a major reason some large AG companies initially overlooked the excellent control properties of certain biopesticides that eventually went on to achieve great commercial success.
As a result of these longstanding efficacy challenges, biopesticides were initially only adopted in niche markets. Now, however, adoption is booming, in large part due to the advent of “Omics” technologies (7). Biopesticides have therefore become both more effective and more affordable. These advances have been compounded by the development of cost-effective, industrial-scale fermentation processes (6). Advances in biopesticide formulations are also improving their efficacy (8).
Lack of Application Technologies Suited to Biopesticides
When a foliar crop protection application is conducted, only a small percentage of the sprayed agent reaches the target (e.g., pest or disease) and most of the sprayed product (more than 98%) is wasted (9). The introduction of a new biological is therefore often not practical because cost-prohibitively high rates of product per acre would have to be applied. Therefore, application innovations are crucial for the widespread adoption of biologicals. These innovations may come from advances in foliar applications or alternatives such as seed treatment, or they may be genetically engineered into the crop (pending public acceptance of this technology).
4. The Market for Biologicals Exceeds $240 Billion
The market for biopesticides is booming and, according to two different studies, was estimated to be worth $3.1 billion in 2018 (10) and $10 billion by 2025 (11). The market share for biopesticides will be larger than that of chemicals (12), but the timeframe for this growth is unclear. Biopesticides are also a tool for introducing other biologicals such as biofertilizers, inoculants, probiotics, and biostimulants. Therefore, biologicals have the potential to not only replace chemical pesticides with biopesticides (a market of more than $60 billion), but also to complement or replace agricultural chemical fertilizers, alleviate abiotic stress (e.g., frost, drought, and heat from climate change), and increase crop yields. Biologicals will therefore compete in the $240 billion market for chemical pesticides and fertilizers (13), along with green manure and organic fertilizers from biomass waste.
5. An Opportunity for Biologicals to Leverage the Power of Nature
Nature exercises tremendous power in sustaining the well-being of plants and agricultural crops. The important role of beneficial arthropods in pest control is well-known, and in recent years academia has discovered the extensive impact of the microbiome on plants (14,15). Managing the composition of the soil microbiome as a whole will lead to better solutions for controlling plant disease outbreaks (16). Protecting and utilizing the power of nature’s microbiome and other beneficials to perform specific tasks is the key to biologicals’ potential to replace chemical pesticides and fertilizers (17).
A Megatrend towards Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture
A movement towards more sustainable agriculture utilizing IPM has existed for more than 30 years (2). Now, however, the market is seeing a megatrend towards regenerative agriculture, which emphasizes protection of beneficials and healthier soils, all with the potential to improve food security, address climate change, and preserve biological diversity (18).
This trend is affecting both organic and traditional agriculture. More than a dozen large food companies (e.g., General Mills, Nestlé, Kellogg, and Danone) are promoting regenerative agriculture to reverse climate change (19). The agricultural startup company Indigo also describes a strategy by which microbials will be harnessed to sequester 1 trillion tons of carbon into the soil; this is approximately the amount of carbon added to the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution (20). Protecting residential beneficials will be crucial to realizing these innovations, and thus biologicals will be in high demand due to their specificity in crop protection, as fertilizers, or as stress-alleviation agents, all without harming beneficials.
Natural Residential Beneficials: The Source of New Innovations
Through the intensification of agriculture, soils have deteriorated globally (21). Adverse land-management practices (e.g., intensive soil tilling) and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has reduced both the number and diversity of microbials in the environment. In a regenerative agricultural system, agricultural practices on and around the farm are conducted so as to increase the quantity and importance of beneficials (e.g., arthropods and the microbiome).
The industry has a significant opportunity to develop biologicals that will revolutionize agriculture by creating a resurgence of residential beneficials and triggering the beneficials themselves to control pests, diseases, and weeds, while also making crops more resistant to abiotic crop stresses (e.g., heat, drought, and climate change effects) while increasing crop health and yields.
A focus on the health of beneficials will constitute a paradigm shift from the classical biocontrol of one pest on a given crop with one biopesticide to a biocontrol system that integrates the role of residential beneficials (e.g., microbial consortia) to control pests (22,23). Advances in precision agriculture, digital farming, and integrated system approaches will compound the effectiveness of our ability to access services from residential beneficials with the development of “Omics” technologies (24). The key to this revolution in biologicals will be the development of knowledge regarding the integration of these new products into the agricultural practices of a farm. Today, farmers are ahead of science in their understanding of how to establish healthy soil and foster residential beneficials. Science needs to not only catch up, but also identify lessons from experienced farmers.
The Important Role of Biologicals
The effectiveness of biologicals will be compounded by their contributions to the protection of biodiversity and preservation of beneficials. Biologicals will be in high demand due to their specificity in crop protection, as fertilizers, or as stress-alleviation agents, all without harming beneficials. Management practices will be adapted for use with biologicals to synergize their effect (e.g., pest control and crop growth) with the residential beneficials (e.g., microbes, arthropods, and pollinators). The synergies created by the widespread adoption of biologicals are poised to enable results far beyond the possibilities offered by legacy technologies.
6. The Industry and Investors Recognize the Revolutionary Opportunity in Biologicals
The $240 billion market for biologicals represents a much larger opportunity for the industry than the current crop protection market, which is valued at approximately $60 billion. Venture capital has already returned billions of dollars to investors through investment in biologicals. Successful companies include AgraQuest, Becker Underwood, and Pasteuria Bioscience. New successful start-ups include Indigo, AgBiome, Benson Hill Biosystems, and many others. There is a large demand for new biologicals to facilitate the existing trend towards sustainable agriculture with healthier soils that improve food security, address climate change, and preserve biological diversity.
Development of biologicals will create a large opportunity for investors. For example, Novozymes, which has an alliance with Bayer and other large AG companies, claims that their microbial product can complement or replace agricultural chemicals and fertilizers (13,25).
In addition to the development of biological products themselves, the success of biologicals also depends upon the development of targeted application technologies suitable to biologicals. On the application technology front, Bee Vectoring Technologies International, Inc. (BVT; www.beevt.com) has developed a targeted application solution to address the foliar application issues that have held back widespread adoption of biologicals. The efficiency of the BVT application method, which utilizes bees’ natural activities to deliver biological agents directly to crops, results in the use of only a fraction (2%) of the product that would be used in a foliar application to achieve full treatment. BVT’s technology thereby enables the economical application of innovative biologicals that would otherwise be cost prohibitive (e.g., biologicals sourced from pharmaceuticals) for agriculture.
The most successful companies will anticipate the megatrend towards regenerative agriculture and proactively develop the needed biologicals and corresponding services. Major AG companies are limited in their ability to forecast revolutionary trends due to their focus on existing technologies (chemicals and biotech). Moreover, these companies are risk averse and have management structures (e.g., consensus building) that restrict investment in potentially lucrative but unproven areas. Therefore, the most valuable inventions are likely to come from outside the major AG firms. Aside from limited existing investments in their venture capital funds, the major AG firms will build their portfolio of solutions to address the revolution in biologicals through acquisitions, at high premiums, once the technologies are derisked.
Biologicals will replace a large portion of chemical crop-protection products and fertilizers, which together represent a market exceeding $240 billion. Biologicals will control pests, diseases, and weeds and fertilize crops directly all without harming beneficials, which in turn compounds their effectiveness. The widespread use of biologicals will revolutionize agriculture by triggering a resurgence in the residential beneficial populations that will control pests and diseases and make crops more resilient against biotic and abiotic crop stresses (e.g., heat, drought, and salinity during climate change) while increasing crop health and yields.
Stakeholders at every level will benefit from this revolution: Consumers will be assured that their food is grown safely and sustainably; farmers will have new tools for regenerative agriculture and a new income stream from sustainable services such as carbon sequestration as a means to combat climate change; and the industry will enjoy a large new market, which will guarantee a sustainable pipeline of future biologicals, thus more than replacing revenues lost due to declining chemical usage.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Patrick Flueckiger for editing this article, as well as Ashish Malik and Christoph Lehnen for their valuable contributions.
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