By Dr Pamela Marrone
Derived from nature, biologicals offer farmers an effective, environmentally friendly and socially acceptable way to protect crops. Used by both conventional and organic farmers alike, they can be used alone or combined with synthetic products. Dr Pamela Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI), tells us more.
What type of work and research does Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI) do?
MBI discovers, develops and commercializes biological based pest management and plant health products. We produce both microbe and plant extract-based spray treatments, and have amassed a library of over 18,000 microorganisms, as well as hundreds of plant extracts which have been screened for pest management properties. This screening pipeline has led to the release of eight microbial and natural product treatments covering bio-insecticides, fungicides, nematicides and molluscicides.
MBI does a lot of work developing natural microbial-based treatments, from where do you source these microbes?
We find them all over the world. The microbe in our nematicide treatment was sourced from a garden near a Buddhist temple in Japan. We also have an insecticide microbe, which was discovered under a hemlock tree in the Catoctin Mountains, Maryland! One of our type strains was even found under the bark of a cinnamon tree in the Honduran rainforests.
What are the major benefits offered by biological-based pest treatments and how do they fit into a sustainable integrated farming approach?
Biologicals are the perfect fit for this farming approach. Time and time again growers using our products in an integrated program see the same or better yields then a chemical only approach, but you get so many other benefits. Biologicals are extremely biodegradable and don’t leave any residues meaning you can spray right up to harvest, which is great for export markets as they comply with many global regulations. It’s also important for labor flexibility, as you can spray in the morning and be back in the field in the afternoon.
Another major benefit of biologicals is in resistance management. For the most part, pests and pathogens don’t develop resistance to these types of products due to their complex modes of action. Used in tank mixes and rotations we can even delay the development of resistance to chemicals. Environmentally speaking, biologicals generally don’t affect pollinators or beneficial insects – though there are some exceptions – and they have low mammalian toxicity so are good for worker safety.
What type of farmers do you find are the biggest market for your biological products?
70% of our sales are to conventional farmers and 30% to organic. This came as a surprise to everybody as these products often get pigeon-holed into being just for the organic sector, but conventional farmers are adopting them at a rapid pace due to the unique benefits they offer.
How do you see the balance between chemical and biological pest control developing in the future?
I truly believe that with some of the types of biologicals we have available today, they will be seen over time as the base for integrated pest management with chemicals being dialed in when needed, whereas the reverse is true today. If you look at fruit and nut production in the Western United States, when regulatory bodies banned Azinphos-methyl – which was the chemical controlling codling moth – growers thought it was the end of the world. Instead a coalition of growers and government came together to develop the pheromone mating disruption system that is in place today. Pheromones are now the base of codling moth control, with chemicals only being dialed in when needed if the population breaks out. There is an example where biologicals can be the base of the program.
What are the key future areas for innovation and research in the biological sector?
There is a really interesting digital and sensor technology being applied to pheromones. Some companies are producing traps which take pictures of the number of moths collected, and then tell field dispensers how much pheromone to puff out. There are also a lot of new startups and money going into the biostimulant area, usually in algal or microbial-based products, especially for seed treatments. Generally, there needs to be a lot more work in formulation. Formulations can make or break a biological pesticide, as they’re so biodegradable that without proper formulation, some of the actives in our products are gone in a few hours.
What are the biggest challenges facing the biologicals market today?
There is still low awareness and understanding of the biological category, despite the fact the market is growing in double digits. There is a need for education and building awareness around biologicals, as these products have a unique mode of action, they’re usually not like chemicals in how they work. As they can work slower and are often preventatives, there’s still a taint around them that they don’t work as well as chemicals and that’s really a myth.
Dr Pamela Marrone is CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI), a Californian company specializing in naturally derived pest management and plant health treatments. After completing a PhD in entomology, the entrepreneur worked with and founded several companies researching and screening natural products and microbes for crop protection properties. Following this experience, she founded the award-winning Marrone Bio Innovations in 2006.