As the spotlight shines on biopesticide development more than ever before, it is important to consider the fact that incorporating these — ideally — ecofriendly methods of pest control encompass more than simply embracing green alternatives.
What are the Realistic Expectations for Biopesticides to Replace Synthetics in Commercial Agriculture?
Grady Moore | Farmsense
The Future of Biopesticides
The commercial agricultural sector is at a crossroads, with increasing concerns about the environmental and health impacts of synthetic pesticides. This has spurred interest in an alternative approach that has long lingered in the back of the minds of biological producers, farmers, and environmentalists — biopesticides. As the spotlight shines on biopesticide development more than ever before, it is important to consider the fact that incorporating these — ideally — ecofriendly methods of pest control encompass more than simply embracing green alternatives; it’s about redefining the very essence of how we protect our crops. That’s why we decided to answer the question, what are the realistic expectations for biopesticides to replace synthetics in commercial agriculture.
What are Biopesticides?
Biopesticides or biological pesticides, represent a category of pest control substances derived from natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain minerals. Unlike conventional synthetic pesticides, biopesticides are typically regarded as less toxic and target specific pests, minimizing harm to beneficial insects, animals, and the environment. This attribute makes them a key component in integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.
The EPA defines biopesticides by their origin and mechanism of action. For example, microbial biopesticides consist of microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses that target specific pests. Biochemical pesticides, on the other hand, use natural substances like pheromones and plant extracts to disrupt the behavior, life cycle, or development of pests. Plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs) are another type, where genetic material from a biopesticide is introduced into a plant’s genetic material, enabling the plant itself to produce the pest-resistant substance.
Biopesticide research and development has seen a steady increase in popularity due to the potential environmental benefits coupled with the commercial agriculture industry’s trending focus on sustainability, but they do not come without their own set of hurdles. Although they are generally considered safer for humans and non-target species and can degrade rapidly, their efficacy and stability can be influenced by environmental conditions, and they often require precise application methods and timing. Despite their challenges and small market share compared to synthetics, biopesticides are increasingly being viewed as an important tool towards improved sustainability.
The Issue Behind Biopesticide Efficacy and Testing Gaps
Of the current 390 registered active ingredients categorized as biopesticides — per the EPA’s definition — most would be quickly labeled by commercial farmers as more variable, often slower-acting, and of a lower efficacy than conventional synthetic pesticides. Although this may stand to be an accurate assessment on paper, it isn’t exactly an apples to apples…or whatever agricultural commodity you’d prefer — comparison. When compared to the registration process of active ingredients in synthetic pesticides, the EPA seemingly fast tracks registration and testing data requirements of active ingredients used in biopesticides.
While on the surface these lower regulatory hurdles for biopesticide registration may appear to be a viable method by the EPA to promote the use of biologicals over synthetics, these loose regulations could actually serve as a thorn in the side of biopesticide adoption rates. Additionally, from the perspective of manufacturers, the cost to refine optimum treatment parameters is very high given the fact that they inherently have limitations that affect field performance like specificity, stability, cost, and timing — areas that synthetic pesticide producers develop during the long product development period and partly as a byproduct of extensive safety testing.
Of course, this is not to say that biological producers throw caution to the wind or that biopesticides are more marketing than usefulness — that is not at all the case. Instead, the takeaway should be that due to the EPA’s antiquated definition of biopesticides, there’s less emphasis and incentive for producers to fine-tune synthetic alternatives to a point where efficacy is at least close to that of synthetic pesticides. In the case of biopesticides, manufacturers are incentivized to create the most efficacious product by market acceptance. The result of this approach creates a vicious cycle where agricultural operators continue seeking biological substitutes — hence the continued growth in popularity of biopesticide use — but are often forced to revert to synthetics due to the poor effectiveness of biopesticides. Regardless of how many tests are conducted, some biologicals may never meet the efficacy growers demand. To overcome this shortcoming, biologicals may need to be combined with other tools.
It should be noted that, although the EPA doesn’t directly regulate efficacy or resistance management, the aforementioned hurdle is an indirect result of the EPA’s reduced registration requirements of biopesticides. With a better-fitting definition of biopesticides and incentives to improve efficacy, biopesticides are in an excellent position to, at minimum, supplement and reduce commercial agriculture’s annual use of over one billion pounds of conventional pesticides. This topic alone will likely become increasingly discussed as regulatory bodies continue imposing restrictions on active ingredients. Ideally, the development of high efficacy biopesticides will usher in a new chapter for farmers, leaving them with the same problems as before, but this time with an additional set of tools.
Why Has the Biopesticide Adoption Rate So Slow in Commercial Agriculture?
As discussed, the vague regulatory definitions, low efficacy rates, and testing gaps of biopesticides have all played a role in the less than desirable adoption rates by commercial farmers. Additionally, in the case of organic farmers, when an effective biopesticide is introduced to the market, it faces the risk of overuse because of the limited choices of effective pest control available to organic farmers. Much like synthetic pesticides, overuse of biopesticides can also lead to the development of pest resistance. However, these aren’t the only reasons that biopesticides have experienced such a slow adoption as a supplemental tool to conventional synthetic pesticides.
Workflow Disruption & Market Awareness – Time is a critical resource in commercial agriculture and disrupting workflows that have been in place for generations is often frowned upon. Halting production at any stage to train farmhands, revising application methods and timelines, and ensuring that a new pest management approach is going according to plan are activities that can often be viewed as a liability to a farmer’s profitability. When this factor is coupled with the fact that there is generally a lack of awareness and knowledge about biopesticide availability and best practices amongst farmers, the idea of incorporating a new pest management practice is often a hill too large to overcome.
Economics and Availability – The availability and accessibility of biopesticides can not only be limited in some regions, but they can also be viewed as fiscally risky to incorporate. Although biopesticides can be comprehensively cost-effective in the long-term due to their reduced environmental impact and health risks, their initial cost can be on par with — or even higher — than conventional synthetics. It is easy for a non-farmer on the outside to quickly regard a farmer’s decision to use synthetics over biologicals as selfish or careless, but it is important to consider the decision from the farmer’s perspective: You’ve got 1500 acres of crops that are susceptible to a detrimental pest that farmers three counties over have reported recent infestations – and they’re likely heading your direction. You’re a few weeks shy of your harvest window and the yield from this pending harvest will determine the success of your farm for the year — as well as the numerous employees who rely on your farm for a source of income, crop contracts that you’re legally obligated to uphold, and the farm’s potential during the next growing season. You can either choose a synthetic broad-spectrum pesticide that has proven itself highly effective over the past 10 years or you can opt for an eco-friendly biopesticide that is relatively new to the market and supported by minimal testing and efficacy data…Which route would you take as the farmer? Naturally, this example is a bit hyperbolic as not every pest management scenario is as impactful, but hopefully it serves as a reminder that there are multiple facets that go into pest management decisions.
Lack of Robust Research Programs – Lastly and as previously touched on, there’s often a lack of robust objective 3rd party research programs supporting the use of biopesticides, which can deter farmers from adopting them. These challenges highlight the need for increased education, research, and policy support to enhance the adoption of biopesticides in commercial farming.
Will Biopesticides Ever be as Good as Synthetics?
In a nutshell…no.
…But, as with most things in the commercial agriculture industry, we must consider much more than a simple nutshell approach. In a perfect world, completely safe and eco-friendly biopesticides would fully eradicate the need for potentially harmful synthetic chemicals when it comes to pest management, however Mother Nature is imperfect by design and utilizes a cadre of tools to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. It is safe to say that the goal of biopesticide development has never been focused on the complete elimination of synthetics. Instead, biopesticides are ideally to serve as a safer, more environmentally friendly method to supplement pest management efforts, thus reducing the volume of synthetics required in commercial agriculture.
Synthetic pesticides are highly effective and predictable due to their specific design to target and eliminate a wide range of pests quickly and efficiently. These compounds aren’t produced overnight, but instead are a result of extensive research and development, ensuring they are not only effective against pests, but that they’re also stable enough to withstand various environmental conditions. However, this effectiveness comes with considerations of environmental impacts and the development of resistance in pests — even though synthetics have improved their safety profile significantly over the past few decades.
Consider that the invention of fire extinguishers was never intended to eliminate the need for professional fire fighters, but instead were created to serve as a supplemental tool to bridge the gap of time between managing a fire yourself and calling on professional fire fighters. We should view biopesticides and synthetics in a similar manner — biopesticides aren’t necessarily intended to completely eliminate the need for synthetics, but instead are best served as another tool in our pest management toolbox, ideally reducing the input requirements of synthetics.
The world of biopesticide development isn’t perfect, but few things in commercial agriculture are. While biopesticides may — at least in the foreseeable future — never fully replace synthetic pesticides, this doesn’t mean that biopesticides aren’t capable of playing a pivotal role in the future of sustainable commercial agriculture. With the proper implementation of integrated pest management (IPM), specifically monitoring and sanitation practices, farmers will likely discover that they can create a more balanced and integrated approach to pest management by utilizing biopesticides when compared to synthetics alone. This type of sentiment is already gaining traction in certain markets. For example, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the California Almond Board are now promoting “sustainable pest management” (SPM), which includes IPM as a foundational piece and adds area-wide considerations as an additional pillar for success. We expect shifts in sustainable practices to continue trending upwards across the commercial agriculture industry for years to come. For more information on the future of pesticides in commercial agriculture and the latest real-time pest monitoring technology, please visit FarmSense.io.
About Grady Moore
Grady Moore is a writer and business consultant for the ag-tech, cannabis, and hemp industries. He holds a Master of Science in medical cannabis science and therapeutics from the University of Maryland. When he isn’t working, you can likely find him playing with his golden retriever named Doobie, taking time-lapse photography, or practicing cello. To keep up with Grady, follow him on LinkedIn.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow
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