With a price tag of nearly $300 million to develop a synthetic chemistry, crop science companies have shifted research dollars toward biological pest control products.
However, company representatives don’t envision a future where biologicals replace chemistries.
They say biological products will be used in combination with chemistry and other tools.
“It’s challenging to come up with complete solutions, based on just biologicals,” said Wayne Barton, manager of research and commercial development for BASF Canada.
In 2016, Phillips McDougall, a British consultancy, released a report on the research and development cost to commercialize a synthetic crop protection product.
Phillips McDougall surveyed the major firms, including BASF, Bayer, Dow and DuPont, and found it costs $286 million to bring a fungicide, herbicide or insecticide to market in 2010-2014.
It also takes, on average, 11.3 years to commercialize an agricultural chemistry.
With those timelines and costs, crop protection firms are dedicating more R&D dollars to biologicals, which are described as natural micro-organisms that provide pest control or plant health benefits.
The survey found that by 2014, crop science companies spent 7.4 percent of R&D budgets on bio-control.
By 2019 that’s expected to hit 9.2 percent. Those figures don’t include acquisitions of bio-control firms or spending by smaller players that specialize in biologicals.
The industry may be investing hundreds of millions in biocontrols, but the products won’t push chemistry aside.
“We’re looking for the complementary,” said Paul Thiel, Bayer CropScience’s vice-president of product development and regulatory science, from his office in Calgary.
“In other words, can you use a biological in a program with synthetic chemistry and other things, to come up with the best solution for the customer?”
Bayer is selling a line of bio-fungicides, called Serenade, which is used on potatoes, vegetable and fruit crops.
The company is also promoting its use as a biological foliar fungicide for canola, pulse and bean crops.
Bayer makes it clear, on its web-site, that Serenade “works best” when used in a program with other chemistries.
Thiel said apple and potato producers use multiple applications of fungicides to control things like apple scab and blight. A bio-fungicide could replace one of those treatments during the growing season to cut the likelihood of fungal resistance or extend the time between the last pesticide application and harvest.
Using a biological by itself isn’t realistic because the technology isn’t as effective.
“To achieve the equivalent level of biological activity, with a biological product versus a chemistry, we haven’t been able to do that in all cases,” Barton said.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t believe there’s a future there…. We’re certainly learning and investing.”
It seems logical that a biological could be effective on smaller organisms, like a fungi or an insect. But could they kill or suppress a 50 centimetre tall weed?
Thiel said it’s possible, but there are limitations.
“I would not exclude the potential for biological weed control,” he said. “But biologicals are extraordinarily targeted. You would never control broadleaf weeds, you may control a specific weed with a biological.”
There’s also the matter of how it’s applied. If growers have to use a huge volume of product, handling and applying the bio-control becomes a nuisance.
Thiel said urban markets, where jurisdictions are restricting or banning the use of synthetic pesticides, represents a new opportunity for biological products.
As well, there is the organic farming market.
“There is a role for exclusive biologicals as part of a program say in an organic production scheme,” he said.
Looking ahead, Thiel expects bio-control products will become more common in the mid term.
As for cost, he said research and development for biologicals is lower than synthetic pesticides.
“I don’t think it’s an order of magnitude less. But it is less.”