AgraQuest: Low-Chem Strategy

The path forward for biopesticides has been a long and difficult one in agriculture. For decades, manufacturers have worked to develop and market these naturally-derived compounds as stand-alone products that would act as pure replacements for traditional pesticide products.

Unfortunately, because of the historical limitations of efficacy and longevity, biopesticides have rarely competed well toe-to-toe with traditional pesticide products in conventional cropping systems. Over the years, these products have been relegated to niche organic markets, where a loyal but limited following could be achieved.

In recent years, driven by the search for ways to manage resistance, gain more flexibility at harvest time, and squeeze every bit of yield out of every field, a new concept is being put forward with promising success: Blending conventional and biopesticides to create solutions that deliver lower environmental impact, improved worker safety, and enhanced effectiveness.

Shifting the focus of biopesticides from stand-alone to complementary is the main path that AgraQuest, a Davis, CA-based biopesticide research and development company, has been traveling in recent years.

Defining ‘Low-Chem’

Founded in 1995, AgraQuest has developed and tested a wide range of biopesticide compounds over the years. This has produced a wealth of research data that’s driven this new paradigm for its core compounds and future pipeline. The company defines its partnering strategy as “low-chem solutions.”

A viable low-chem solution benefits the crop production system one of two ways. It reduces the amount of regulated pesticide residues or negative environmental profile without reducing the efficacy or yield, either by replacing the traditional pesticide or by allowing a significant rate reduction. Or, used as a supplement, it serves to increase the efficacy and/or yield without adding to the chemical load.

While AgraQuest through its Agrochemicals division continues to develop its biopesticides both as stand-alone products and in synergistic “low chem” solutions in conventional agriculture, Ashish Malik, senior vice president of global marketing for AgraQuest, explains that the company’s Bioinnovations Division is “keenly focused on extending the use of its unique intellectual property in markets that are adjacent to agriculture, such as animal nutrition, turf and ornamentals, and home and garden.”

The company estimates that overall market demand, driven by consumer demand and pressure from regulators and food processors to reduce or eliminate residues, will grow to between $5 billion and $10 billion by 2017. It also estimates that about 55% of its growth as a company will be derived from expanded use of its current products. The balance of its growth will come from new and future pipeline products and the Bioinnovations division by 2013.

AgraQuest took a significant leap forward this year when it signed a global distribution agreement with BASF for its Serenade biofungicide product. BASF will market Serenade in numerous geographies, starting in Latin America and then expanding into Europe and Asia-Pacific. Serenade provides fungal control by breaking down the cell membrane of target fungi. It also stops the spores of the pathogen from germinating, disrupts their growth, and prevents them from attaching to plant leaves.

Philip Lane, head of global fungicide research for BASF, recalls that grower meetings led to the recognition of the potential fit for a product like Serenade. “A grower talked about the difficulty of using traditional products for crops like tomatoes that require successive harvests,” says Lane. “The required preharvest intervals made him feel very exposed to potential loss of yield, investment, and income.”

There also were the multiple issues of minimizing pesticide runoff and meeting processor residue limits. All this led to the exploration of biopesticides to address this, Lane explains. “We became award of Serenade and what could it do,” he says.

Finding Positives

Two properties of Serenade that are limitations for most biopesticides in commercial production — quick degradation and non-relevant residues — could be turned into a benefit if it became a supplement to a traditional fungicide. Greenhouse trials were conducted in 2007 and full-scale field trials in 2008 and 2009.

“We found that in some cases the activity of Seren­ade alone was not on a comparative level with traditional chemistries, but integrated with traditional BASF fungicides, we could extend the season of control to the harvest period,” says Lane. “It’s taken a lot of perseverance and time to get the right combination of products, but we’ve had enough success to step in and sign the agreement.”
“Recently we have received a lot of interest from large agriculture partners in the row crop markets, and we have a significant number of new actives out in field trials in 2010,” says Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of AgraQuest. “We’re positioned to really accelerate our business both in the U.S. and globally.”

Next year’s US-based research will come on the heels of the successful launch of Ballad Plus fungicide for the soybean market. As a stand-alone product, it is the only fungicide listed for organic use that controls Asian soybean rust. The usage of Ballad Plus in conjunction with strobilurin products has shown synergies regarding improved control, says Meadows-Smith.

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