Biopesticides are seen as viable alternatives to today’s chemicals, believed by many to hold the future’s keys to enhanced crop protection, increased yields, environmental protection and consumer safety. If biopesticides truly do bring about the revolution in pest control many predict, a tidal wave of change will reverberate through virtually every sector of American farming in the decade of the 2020s with every sector seeing impacts on social, economic and environmental life not dissimilar to those seen as the computer revolution played out over time.

What are biopesticides?

Biopesticides are pesticides derived from animal, plant, bacteria and minerals found in nature. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, canola oil and baking soda have pesticide applications and are considered biopesticides. One of the best known examples of a natural pesticide in use for decades is neem, oil derived from the seeds of a plant native to the Indian subcontinent.

The past two decades have seen a surge of interest in biopesticides. That surge, expedited by EPA’s simplified registration process for the “natural” products, has resulted in acceptance for the marketplace, of a total of 299 registered biopesticide active ingredients and 1,401 active biopesticide product registrations, with, by all accounts, hundreds more in the research, development and registration stages.

The EPA sorts biopesticides into three primary classes:

  1. “Biochemical pesticides are naturally occurring substances that control pests by nontoxic mechanisms. Conventional pesticides, by contrast, are generally synthetic materials that directly kill or inactivate the pest. Biochemical pesticides include substances that interfere with mating, such as insect sex pheromones, as well as various scented plant extracts that attract insect pests to traps. Because it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a substance meets the criteria for classification as a biochemical pesticide, EPA has established a special committee to make such decisions.
  2. Microbial pesticides consist of a microorganism (e.g., a bacterium, fungus, virus or protozoan) as the active ingredient. Microbial pesticides can control many different kinds of pests, although each separate active ingredient is relatively specific for its target pest[s]. For example, there are fungi that control certain weeds and other fungi that kill specific insects.
  3. Plant-incorporated-protectants (PIPs) are pesticidal substances that plants produce from genetic material that has been added to the plant. For example, scientists can take the gene for the Bt pesticidal protein and introduce the gene into the plant’s own genetic material. Then the plant, instead of the Bt bacterium, manufactures the substance that destroys the pest. The protein and its genetic material, but not the plant itself, are regulated by EPA.”

The Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA; formerly the BioPesticide Industry Alliance) is celebrating its 17th year in 2017. Optimism is high among its membership that biopesticides are on their way to becoming the wave of the future. Worldwide sales, according to the BPIA, of about $250 million at the turn of the century are at nearly $3 billion today and are expected to exceed $4 billion by 2020.

Slide 1

Conventional farming may benefit most

Although most biopesticides are certified for use in certified organic operations, enthusiasm regarding the future of biopesticides is focused on conventional farms. According to the BPIA, “Manufacturers value the lower regulatory costs associated with biopesticides due to their inherent safety. They also find that using biopesticides in concert with conventional chemistry benefits both products as pest resistance risk is minimized and pesticide residues on crops are reduced, while the level of performance is maintained or improved. Growers adopt biopesticides to take advantage of the worker safety and flexibility they offer due to their user safety…”

Slide 2

Regarding the consumer, the Alliance states, “While consumers may not specifically seek out crops treated with biopesticides, they are demanding that food, in particular fresh produce, and is free from pesticide residues. As result of these demands, many grocery store chains and food marketers are establishing guidelines for growers which require them to seek out alternatives that minimize pesticide residues. Biopesticides are utilized to manage plant pests and diseases across a broad and diverse range of situations, including row crops, fruits and vegetables, greenhouses, nurseries, and turf, as well as home and garden uses…”

Slide 3

In short, one of the significant impacts biopesticides might have on the marketplace is a narrowing of the perceived gap between certified organic and conventionally grown foodstuffs. A significant factor in the growth of the certified organic sector of the agricultural industry in recent decades has been public perception regarding the chemicals utilized on conventional farms to control pests. If, in terms of applied pest control inputs, conventional farmers are using the same products certified organic farms use, much of the reasoning supporting the price differential between conventional and certified product disappears. Conventional farms using biopesticides in conjunction with integrated pest management may be able to justify upticks in their own prices for product while certified organic producers may find it more difficult to justify the price differentials they now enjoy.

Slide 4

The future: growth and implementation

Encouraged by governmental support, public concerns about existing pesticides (and thus market concerns), farm owners’ concerns about pest adaptation to existing pesticides, positive results in the field, and the opportunities for enhancing profitability through increased marketability and competitiveness with specialty growers, conventional farmers are beginning to notice on the horizon, it seems likely biopesticides are on the leading edge of a revolution regarding the way agricultural pests are controlled.

Biopesticides are beginning to influence the financial markets as well. Markets and Markets, an international research organization providing business-to-business research to “…5,000 customers worldwide including 80 percent of global Fortune 1000 companies as clients,” reported in 2016 that, “The global biopesticides market is estimated to be valued at USD $3.36 billion in 2016 and projected to reach USD $8.82 billion by 2022, at a CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of 17.4 percent from 2016. With the increase in demand for organic food, food security for the growing population, control of pests which have gained resistance to chemical pesticides, along with the limited agricultural land available in the world, and rise in crop loss due to pests and diseases, the use of biopesticides is expected to enhance the market growth.”

Preparing for the future

The drivers of the potential revolution in pest control technology include powerful social, economic and environmental factors compelling change. In addition, the Certified Organic movement has served as a sort of canary in the mineshaft, allowing a potential market for new approaches to pest control to be explored on the ground. Farmers presently using conventional approaches to pest control would do well to at least keep an eye cocked toward what is going on in the alternative pesticide sector of the agricultural economy and be prepared to consider new approaches when the time seems right.