The battle against pests seems never-ending, but innovative crop protection companies have long been hard at work on the issue. Recently, a trend has been developing that will bring new tools to bear on those pests you fight every day — and they’ll be biological.

The most recent news comes from FMC, which announced it has created a biological crop protection platform. The company purchased the Center for Agricultural and Environmental Biosolutions, a North Carolina-based division of RTI International, which specializes in scouting and screening for new microbes. In addition, FMC formed an alliance with Chr. Hansen, a biosciences company with expertise in cultures, enzymes and fermentation. The new strategic alliance enables FMC to compete in the multibillion-dollar biological crop protection market.

Under the arrangement, Chr. Hansen will provide scouting, screening, scale-up and fermentation manufacturing expertise, while FMC will provide scouting, screening, formulation capabilities, product development and registration experience, and global market access.

“The market has been dominated by synthetic chemistry,” says Mark Douglas, president of FMC. “And the cost to bring a synthetic product to market is more expensive all the time, and can take a decade or more. The risk-reward ratio is extreme.”

Turning to biologicals, which Douglas says should not be confused with “organic,” offers a shorter path from lab to market while also offering the market enhanced modes of action to control key pests. And, he explains, there’s a kind of synergy seen when biologicals and synthetic chemistry combine in the field.

This kind of market shift is occurring across several major players, from Bayer CropScience and Poncho/Votivo to the recent launch of Clariva by Syngenta Crop Protection for control of soybean cyst nematode. The active ingredient in Clariva is Pasteuria nishizawa, a bacteria that interrupts the life cycle of the nematode and eventually kills it. The bacteria remains in the soil throughout the season, too.

Defining ‘biologicals’

FMC’s Douglas notes that biologicals are products derived from “sources of bacteria or plant extracts; they’re a natural source, in that sense.” The key is that companies are working with living organisms that must be processed, packed, shipped, stored and then delivered to the farm.

“You can have both live organisms and dead organisms that can do a task,” he says. “The key aspect here is bringing the synthetic and the biological together, and we’re strong on formulation science.”

Earlier this year, BASF closed on its purchase of Becker Underwood and created its Functional Crop Care division, where the company sees a future in biologicals, as well. While it started with inoculants, Becker Underwood was already working on products that do more than that in the soil. For example, Integral is a biofungicide that extends suppression of two key fungal diseases.

“These are living organisms,” says Justin Clark, technical marketing specialist for BASF. “For example, with Vault HP inoculant plus Integral biofungicide, we have Bacillus subtilis, which is a biofungicide and has biostimulant properties.” He adds that Integral biofungicide is also in other products in the line, helping control key plant diseases using a biobased approach.

BASF constantly tests its biologicals to make sure they are viable and effective when deployed on the farm. Clark explains how the company works to package and preserve inoculant products. They are labeled, and farmers have to make sure they aren’t exposed to temperature extremes. “These are living organisms, and you have to take care of them,” he says.

He adds that for inoculants applied to seed, the company has demonstrated a significant level of on-seed survival. “With Vault HP inoculant plus Integral biofungicide, we have 125-plus days on-seed survival with common seed treatment actives for the rhizobia, and 240 days on-seed survival for the Integral biofungicide.”

Secondary mode of action

Of course, the word “resistance” is usually on the minds of farmers and their agronomists, and biologicals can help prevent the problem by bringing in those additional modes of action. “We’re not walking away from synthetic chemistry; we’re known as ‘the chemical company,’ ” says BASF’s Clark. “We’re seeing incremental benefits from biological and plant health benefits, as well.”

Over at Bayer CropScience, the purchase of AgraQuest in 2012 started the company down the biological road. The California-based AgraQuest has several biological-based products, including fungicides and insecticides. For example, its Serenade MAX uses Bacillus subtilis to destroy disease pathogens in plants.

During a conversation at the Bayer CropScience annual press conference, CEO Liam Condon talked about biologicals and their role at the company.

He explained that AgraQuest has a “fantastic technology base,” and they want to get the products commercialized and fully integrated into the pipeline as fast as possible. “We want to develop the data that is needed to convince growers about the efficacy of these products,” Condon said.

Biologicals bring exciting science to the game of pest control, using nature to break through a yield-robbing disease or other pest’s defenses in new ways. It’s an area worth watching as companies ramp up development efforts. And the regulatory approval process is more favorable, as well.

“The process through the regulatory phase is usually two to three years,” says FMC’s Douglas. “That’s what we’ve seen so far, so our product time frame is later in this decade.”