AgroPages recently published an article entitled Biologicals: The Next Agricultural Technology Revolution. This article concludes that biological agricultural products are poised to revolutionize the agriculture industry and eventually replace chemical products in the $240 billion global crop protection and fertilizer market.
Based on significant interest in this article, the AgroPages editorial staff asked the author to comment on several follow up questions of interest to our readers. The author of this article, Dr. Claude Flueckiger, is an AgroPages Contributing Author and a consultant providing strategic advisory services to companies in the global agriculture and crop protection industries. Our discussion follows:
Dr. Claude Flueckiger
Christina Xie: How long, in your opinion, will it take until the market share of biologicals surpass that of chemical crop-protection products (CCPPs)?
Claude Flueckiger: This is difficult to say, but it may still take more than 10 years. Adoption will be slower in developing countries and in low value crops. In many markets the share of biologicals has now already surpassed that of CCPPs. As biopesticides and other biological innovations become highly efficacious, and the trends against using CCPPs become more prominent, more and more markets will shift away from using CCPPs and towards using biologicals.
Christina: Which countries or regions will act as big suppliers of biological products in the future? Will countries like China and India still have the chance to supply the world market, like they do for CCPPs now?
Claude: China and India may become big suppliers of biological products in the future as they are for CCPPs now. As a prerequisite for China and India to become major biological suppliers, they will have to change the setup of their innovation streams and adapt their supply chains accordingly. However, even with those adaptations, some production of biological products will likely move closer to the locations where the markets are.
Christina: As traditional CCPP multinationals expand their biologicals business through M&A or investment, do you think the big 3 or 4 will still be the leaders in the crop protection industry in the future, even if the industry belongs to biologicals?
Claude: The problem for traditional CCPP multinationals is that they are set up to do well financially with blockbuster products. This conflicts with the market demand for specific, targeted biological products that are IPM compatible.
Furthermore, for reasons that I discuss in more detail in the full article, the most valuable innovations in the biologicals business are likely to originate from outside the major AG firms. Outside innovations will become a steadily increasing competitive challenge for the CCPP multinationals.
Those multinationals that are able to adapt to market needs, through M&A and investments in the correct innovations, will continue to stay dominant. There is however an increasing opportunity for smaller and mid-size companies to compete with the multinationals. As an example, one of the companies that I am currently advising has developed technology that uses commercially-reared bees to deliver targeted crop controls through the natural process of pollination (www.beevt.com).
These types of innovations form the technological foundation for the paradigm shift towards biological products, and it is an open question whether new multinational companies will emerge as part of the shift towards biological products, or whether the existing multinationals will aggressively invest in those areas to secure their long term dominance in the face of a changing market.
Christina: You initiated and oversaw the development of Thiamethoxam (chemical product). From a personal point of view, what made you change your mind about chemical pesticides?
Claude: I wouldn’t say that I changed my mind. Rather, in the past, biologicals were not a commercially viable option because they were not available to efficiently address the mainstream needs of the growers. My motivation has always been to develop products to increase the productivity and sustainability of agriculture using the most effective technologies available at the time.
At the time of its introduction, Thiamethoxam (TMX) was a beneficial innovation because it replaced far more toxic compounds and was critical in advances towards sustainable agriculture. Now, however, I believe that biologicals finally have the potential to replace the role of CCPPs like Thiamethoxam, and I view this as a positive development for all stakeholders.
To answer your question in more detail, it is helpful to view the introduction of TMX and other neonicotinoids in a historical context. When I joined the AG industry and worked on insecticide development in the early 1980’s, the industry standard insecticides were organophosphates (OP) and carbamates (CM). At the time of their introduction, OP and CM were viewed as innovative because of their lack of residue persistence in the environment, and in exposed individuals, compared to older organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. However, although they were an improvement over older products, the OP and CM products were extremely toxic and posed a threat to the environment. OP and CM were the most commonly used insecticides at the time that TMX was introduced. TMX represented a far less toxic replacement for OP and CM products.
For that reason, it was and still is my sincere conviction that developing and introducing TMX was better, from a safety and sustainability point of view, than not developing it at all. Ultimately TMX came to market in the early 2000s and became the most successful insecticide ever introduced in agriculture thereby reducing the use of older more toxic products.
Agriculture, like any industry, benefits from ongoing innovation wherein each new product has advantages over the prior generation. I look forward to a time when neonicotinoids, given their toxicity to bees, will be completely replaced with improved crop protection products. However, when considering restricting the use of neonicotinoids, it is critical to account for what the currently viable alternatives are and whether those alternative technologies have an overall advantage in regard to bees and other safety and sustainability matters.
So, although I still believe that CCPPs like TMX were the best available solutions at the time they were introduced, my shift in motivation away from chemicals is driven by my conviction that biological products and solutions now show so much promise that they will make chemical pesticides obsolete in the future.
If you have interests in this topic, welcome to discuss with Christina or Dr. Claude Flueckiger.