It Just Comes Naturally

The work of the Biopesticide Industry Alliance

Published in the April 2015 Issue Published online: Apr 30, 2015 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Among folks deeply entrenched in the agriculture industry, terms such as “all-natural” and “organic” have long been scoffed at and met with skepticism, if not outright rejection. In recent years, though, the tide has turned. While the all-natural/organic segment will likely never make up the majority of agricultural production, it is now accepted as a viable business path.

The same could be said of the biological segment of the pesticide industry. With increased pressure continually being placed on growers to produce a food source that is both safe and environmentally sustainable, biopesticides (a term which, for purposes of this article, includes biofungicides, bioherbicides, etc.) have gained traction as a legitimate part of the agricultural chemical industry and of countless growers’ application programs. Nearly all chemical companies now have several bio-control products in their catalogs. In fact, there are more than 70 biological products registered for potatoes in the U.S.—products aimed at protecting spuds from planting all the way through storage.

“A lot of growers may not even realize they’re using biologicals,” says Bill Stoneman, executive director of the Biopesticide Industry Alliance (BPIA). “Growers don’t care [that a product is labeled as a biopesticide], as long as the product is effective and functional.”

Since its inception in 2000, the BPIA has worked as an advocate for the advancement of biologicals in the ag sector and as a respected middleman between chemical companies, growers and regulatory agencies such as the EPA and FDA. The BPIA has become so respected, in fact, that Stoneman has a quarterly meeting with EPA officials to discuss the approval process and to relay often difficult-to-decipher messages back to the industry.

“The BPIA is important to our company as an organization that represents our interests to the EPA and aids in presenting a stong case for the use of biologically, naturally occurring products that enhance the quality of produce,” says Addie Waxman of 1,4 Group, a company dedicated solely to producing dormancy-enhancing and sprout-inhibiting chemicals for potato storage. “That is really a big deal for us; it shows that we’re flexible as a company.” Sprout Torch, 1,4Group’s organic product, is composed completely of clove oil and burns sprouts as they emerge.

While the alliance—and, more importantly, the science—has the backing of chemical companies, many of which are BPIA members, it hasn’t quite gained complete acceptance from some researchers and growers. That’s why the BPIA has dedicated itself over the last year or so to expand its outreach efforts. An important part of any application being accepted in the industry is its success in field trials, and biologicals sometimes don’t stand up as well as one would wish in those situations. But Stoneman says that’s not the fault of the products.

“A very important aspect of our work,” he says, “has been the development of the proper materials, formulations and methodologies for use; that’s really important to efficacy. These products do tend to be a bit more delicate in that you can’t just spray them like they’re a chemical and they have a wide response range.”

Stoneman uses as an example a virus-based product he’s had a hand in developing that targets Lepodoptera pests. Once ingested, the product is very effective at killing the larvae. However, the product is also fairly photosensitive, and is rendered nearly impotent if applied in the heat of the day. “The best time to put it on is 7 or 8 p.m.,” he says. “Will the farmer do that? Yes. Will the field researcher do that? Not necessarily; his job is to eliminate variability, and time of application is a variable.

“We really want to educate the educator,” Stoneman continues, “because if it gets into a researcher presentation trial and it doesn’t work, that could be the end of it.”

The BPIA points to two primary attributes of biologicals that give them an advantage over traditional chemistries. The first is resistance management. “Many biopesticides, particularly microbial biopesticides, have multiple modes of action that help prevent resistance,” Stoneman says. “By incorporating biologicals, you actually provide an opportunity for the chemistries to be effective over the longer term because you’re using multiple modes of action.”

The second key quality of biopesticides is the lack of residue they leave behind. All biopesticides registered in the U.S. are exempt from residue regulations, a boon to growers who may suffer a disease or pest infestation in the days and weeks immediately preceding harvest and storage.

“Potatoes are such an important staple, and people in the potato industry don’t always need to be using chemistries,” Stoneman says. “There are good, high-value solutions to problems—especially storage problems that have no residues. Biologicals have become a very important part of the industry.”