Biopesticides: Effective Alternatives

There’s an old bit of wisdom regarding cooperation and friendship that says that two heads are better than one. In truth, this life lesson could apply to Davis, CA-based biopesticide producer AgraQuest, Inc. According to Cesar Lamonega, vice president, Americas and Asian Region for the company, AgraQuest prefers to market its products as complimentary to conventional ones, not as alternatives to them.

“We really don’t see our biopesticides and conventional chemistries as adversarial,” says Lamonega. “Instead, we promote mixing biopesticide use with conventional crop protection products to help extend their life against resistance and improve their efficiencies.”

What AgraQuest does stress about its products is that they adhere to a low chemical (low chem) approach to growing crops. By its definition, low chem methods reduce the amount of regulated crop protection product residues and/or negative impact on the environment without reducing the efficacy or yield of the spray program. This is accomplished in one of two ways: By replacing a current conventional crop protection product spray with a biopesticide or reducing the rate of the conventional product to its lowest label rate.

According to Sarah Reiter, global marketing director, this approach to growing crops comes from numerous sources, inside and outside the industry itself. “Consumers are demanding cleaner food, growers want safer and more flexible inputs and government restrictions on older chemistries are increasing,” says Reiter. “This convergence is growing the need for products in the biopesticide area.”

Few analysts debate that there is a need for more food production in the world, adds Reiter. Based upon the most conservative projections, global growers will have to feed an additional 1.2 billion mouths in the next 10 years using a finite amount of arable land and water resources.

Products To Help

To aid in this effort, AgraQuest has a range of biopesticides in its portfolio, for use on 137 crops in more than 20 countries around the world. These include insecticides Requiem, Baritone and Metronome and fungicides Sonata and Rhapsody.

Specifically for the corn and soybean markets, AgraQuest has Ballad Plus. A fungicide, Ballad Plus features anti-fungal amino sugars and Bacillus spores. According to Reiter, these help increase the plant’s resistance to fungus attacks while increasing nutrient uptake and photosynthesis. In 2009 field trials, Ballad Plus was shown to control or suppress soybean rust, frog eye leaf spot and anthracnose.

Tying back to its promotion of mixing products for better results, Reiter says AgraQuest has conducted several studies on combining Ballad Plus with other fungicides in the strobilurin and triazole chemistries. This included mixing 1-quart of Ballad Plus with the lowest label rate of strobilurin or triazole and 1-pint of Ballad Plus with the highest labeled rate for both chemistries. “In both cases, our tests were able to demonstrate that soybean yields increased an average of 4.6 bushels per area using this approach,” she says.

Another new fungicide from Agra­Quest is Serenade Soil. Applied at planting, the brand helps to build a disease protection zone around the seed using beneficial bacteria. Once colonized, says Reiter, the bacteria produce compounds that not only continue attacking soil disease, but trigger metabolic pathways to activate the plant’s natural defenses and modulate growth. “In tests, Serenade Soil protects against such soil diseases as rhizoctonia, fusarium, pythium and phytophthora,” she says.

Multiple Partnerships

In addition to pointing out how its products work well with other crop protection offerings, AgraQuest also has engaged in an aggressive program partnering with conventional crop protection product manufacturers to distribute its brands. For example, in April 2009, the company signed an agreement with BASF Corp., giving the German company the rights to Serenade for foliar and drench applications in crops in countries throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Last December, AgraQuest announced an agreement with Bayer CropScience LP. Under this arrangement, the company is providing its technology based on the proprietary Bacillus subtilis (QST 173) strain for two of Bayer’s Natria products.

Finally, two months ago, Agra­Quest and Monsanto Co. entered a collaboration to evaluate the potential of the company’s pipeline of biopesticide leads to develop seed treatments for Monsanto’s core crops and vegetables. The three-year deal is aimed at developing seed treatment products to control nematodes, disease and insects and enhance plant growth and yield using AgraQuest’s collection of microbes. “We believe our research in the field of biopesticide alternatives for pest and stress management will complement Monsanto’s work in helping farmers protect the yield potential of their farms by offering them better pest control and plant health options,” says AgraQuest CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith.

With its family of products and market partners in line, AgraQuest is having a “great year” so far in 2010. “After the first quarter, we had a 100% sales increase vs. 2009,” says Lamonega. “For the full year, we expect to be up approximately 45% compared with last year.”

Looking even further ahead, Reiter says AgraQuest is not going to be satisfied to build its future on a few successful brands to date. “We are here to build a sustainable business,” she says.

To this end, the company is conducting field trials on 12 new compounds. With an anticipated approval time from the EPA of 18 months per compound (vs. three years for conventional products), the first of this new wave of biopesticides should be ready to hit the market in 2013. “We want to keep coming up with new ways to utilize the low chem model,” says Reiter.

Lamonega agrees with this view. “Right now, the low chem market is a $800 million segment of the crop protection business globally,” he says. “But in five to seven years, strong drivers will create a market demand for such products approaching $5 billion to $10 billion. We want to ultimately be the leader in this field.”

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