Agricultural Chemicals: A Green Revolution

Consumers and legislators are increasingly demanding crop protection products with sustainable environmental footprints. As awareness of environmental impact grows, Muriel Axford reports on the companies currently in the race to develop environmentally friendly biocontrol agents.

Consumers and those in legislative seats are increasingly pushing for less toxic biocontrol and pesticides, an endeavour that has been supported by laws such the EU's Sustainable Use Directive.

The directive, which will apply across the EU's member states from June 2011, establishes a framework to achieve the 'sustainable use of pesticides by reducing the risks and impact of pesticides on human health and the environment, while promoting the use of integrated pest management and of alternative approaches or techniques such as non-chemical alternatives to pesticides'.

The directive is one that could not come soon enough, according to a recent study from Global Industry Analysts, a US-based market intelligence and research report publisher the world biopesticide market is expected to see high demand and significant growth in the near term.

The study; 'Biopesticides: A Global Strategic Business Report', indicates that the global biopesticides market is expected to reach $2.8bn by 2015 and that while 'delivering an alternative to manage harmful insects, weeds and fungal plant pathogens, biopesticides are poised to witness robust gains in coming years."

This conclusion is certainly being borne out as a number of major players in traditional agrochemicals are taking a position in the biocontrol market through the acquisition of businesses or technology.

Meeting the challenges

"Consumers and those in legislative seats are increasingly pushing for less toxic biocontrol and pesticides."

US-based AgraQuest is among the leading players in the field of biocontrol. Since it was established in1995, the company has developed environmentally friendly biopesticides that can be used for organic farming and high-yield conventional food production. The company is among the leading innovators in the biopesticide market having screened 20,000 microbes and secured 27 US patents and 112 international patents. AgraQuest has 16 commercial brands.

AgraQuest CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith believes the industry had to meet the challenges of feeding a growing population in a sustainable manner.

"Agricultural production is undergoing immense change. We have to feed the growing population with clean, safe and affordable food in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. Growers today have the challenge of being highly productive whilst reducing residues, managing resistance issues and protecting the environment," Meadows-Smith said.

AgraQuest's expertise has led to a number of tie-ups and alliances. During the final quarter of 2010, Monsanto and AgraQuest entered into and a collaboration to evaluate the potential use of AgraQuest'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 improve plant growth yield.

Organic growth and acquisition the way forward

Bayer CropScience, a subsidiary of chemical major Bayer AG, has a significant portfolio of biocontrol products. As well as developing its own products, the company is growing its portfolio by acquisition.

During November 2010, Bayer CropScience, acquired a product for the efficient control of varroa mites from UK-based Exosect. Varroa mites are a relatively new parasite of the honey bee and have spread to most areas of the world within a short period. The mite is considered a crucial factor in the falling number of honey bee colonies in Europe and North America. The product is based on so called Entostat technology, which is based on a food-grade powder refined from natural wax, which is harvested from a particular species of palm tree. This is combined with the miticidal active ingredient thymol.

"With a growing population, sustainability is not just a good thing, it is essential."

Bayer CropScience is also launching a biocontrol seed treatment for corn, soybeans and cotton during 2011. Known as VOTiVO, the product makes use of beneficial bacteria, which the company says creates a living barrier around plant roots so nematodes have limited ability to feed. The formula allows endospores of the bacteria to be applied directly to the seed and when the seed is planted, the endospores are activated. The resulting protection leads to better seedling vigour and higher plant yields. In corn, for example, yield advantage is put at 62lb an acre.

The beginning of 2011 also saw Denmark's Novozymes complete the acquisition of the Merk KGaA's Crop BioScience business. Novozymes spent $275m on the acquisition. The acquired business researches, develops and commercialises crop-enhancing products for on-seed, foliar and in-furrow applications for soy beans, pulses, peanuts, corn and alfalfa.

It's portfolio includes the patented LCO promoter technology – a naturally occurring molecule that has proven health benefits for plants. Novozymes said that acquiring the business, which has been growing by roughly 15% each year for the last seven years, "strengthened its global position in the growing industry for products that enhanced the natural growth and yield of crops."

Novozymes has a significant crop protection portfolio which includes the bioinsecticide met52, a contact insecticide for the control of black vine weevil larvae and strawberry root weevil. The product contains the spores of the naturally occurring soil fungus metarhizium anisopliae. The weevil is considered to be one of the most destructive and widespread in the US and Canada.

The reality has dawned that with a growing population, sustainability is not just a good thing, it is essential. So the push to develop and commercialise 'greener' plant protection products is set to continue for some time.