A greater focus on soil and root health is driving growth in biologicals.

Biologicals have become an emerging option for agri-retailers and producers who are looking for more variety when it comes to crop protection and crop fertility.

These topical or seed treatment products are made from, or contain, natural materials that are intended to work with or replace agricultural chemical products. In recent years, many suppliers and agri-retailers have begun investing time and funds into this developing sector of agriculture.

While biologicals have been around for over 10 years, Krista Anderson, the SeedGrowth development manager at Bayer, says they’re only just beginning to make waves in the industry.

“There are some areas where we’re not finding the answers through a conventional chemical, so they’re looking for ways to enhance that. Biologic responses are subtle, but they can be quite complementary in some cases,” she says. “The folks buying the products at the end of the day have been looking for more options and want to have that as a choice.”

The Role of Biologicals Today

Dr. William Brown, the president and CEO of Adjuvants Plus Inc., says that the use, research and development of biologicals has been steadily increasing over the years, noting that the biggest trend over the last decade has been bacteria-based organisms. But now, the focus has turned to plant root systems and the rhizosphere, which Brown says is extremely important.

“Because of our intense agriculture, we have in fact depleted the rhizosphere,” he says, which is the area of soil near the plant roots. There, the chemistry and microbiology is influenced by the roots’ growth, respiration and nutrient exchange.

“Our intense fertilization and intense management of soil is sometimes a mismanagement of the soil: we remove the air and remove the organic matter over time,” he adds.

As a result, the soil has become tougher and is no longer a good place to grow plants, says Brown. Not only that, but the microflora – the complex mix of bacteria, fungi and micro-
and macro-organisms – has been depleted as well, which leads to pathogens feeding on the roots of plants.

"So, what biologicals can do is shift the microflora away from these pathogens,” says Brown. “They can actually kill pathogens themselves, they can protect the root system and they can protect the rhizobium nodules on pea plants or on soybeans.”

The Benefits

According to Anderson, the benefits of biologicals are numerous. Conventional pest management and organic pest management work well in certain areas, but she says that both of them as standalones are not sustainable.

From a conventional standpoint, producers are worried about residues, long-term impacts on the environment and resistance management, says Anderson. But they’re also concerned that the products they’re using are actually working and are doing what they need them to do – whether that’s mitigate pest issues or help them with frost and drought tolerance.

“Sometimes our conventionals don’t provide these benefits, but the biologicals can because they’re living organisms – if you’re working with the organisms themselves,” says Anderson. “They react to their environment and they can interact with the plants on a different level than how conventional chemistry would.”

Not only that, but biological organisms can grow in tandem with the plant’s root systems, creating what Anderson calls a “mutual benefit.” The plant feeds the rhizobia/bacteria, which helps the nodules with the uptake of minerals and soluble compounds in the soil into the plant, which helps feed it.

“You get a healthier plant and the organism that’s helping it do it is also gaining the benefit from it. So, without those rhizobia there, the root systems aren’t quite as robust and the plants can’t uptake the nutrients and minerals as well, so they’re not as productive,” says Anderson.

Brown notes that biologicals may also have a longer impact compared to their chemistry-based counterparts. The chemistries are applied to the crops, they do their job and they degrade. But with biologicals, he says many of them could remain in the field until the following season.

“While you’ll be treating a disease one year, the residue may in fact be controlling other diseases the next year on a totally different crop. So, that whole concept may be a little hard to sell to the grower,” he says. “But once they catch on, that’s going to be very, very important to the future of agriculture – maintaining the diversity of microflora and stopping the perpetuation of these disease organisms.”

The Challenges

While biologicals may sound like an innovative and sustainable option for agri-retailers and growers alike, Anderson says they’re not without their challenges.

There are regulatory hurdles that they face when researching biologicals – hurdles that researchers wouldn’t encounter with chemistries. In order to conduct small plot research on biologicals out in the field, research permits are required.

Anderson says a living organism could potentially increase and reproduce when put into the environment, something that chemistries can’t do. Since they’re living organisms, they’re less predictable than chemistries.

“With the conventionals, when you’re working with an active ingredient, you know exactly what you’re working with, and that active ingredient doesn’t change,” she says. “If you’re putting one gram on, you put one gram on and you know exactly what you put on and what the profile of it was.”

While biologicals may not be as straightforward as conventionals in some areas, Anderson says that shouldn’t deter researchers from studying them.

“There are certainly systems where biologicals can bring quite a bit to the table, and there are other systems where they are just constantly going to have challenges. Does that mean we should just ignore them? No,” she says. “We just need to find the right innovation, or maybe we need to come at it from a slightly sideways perspective and just keep an open mind and keep looking.”

With these regulatory and scientific challenges, Anderson says that whether or not producers work with biologicals is not an issue for them. Through speaking with producers, she’s found that there are no “hang-ups” regarding biologicals. “They’re more than willing to use them, as long as they can demonstrate a return on their investment,” she says.

Believability amongst producers is another challenge, according to Daniel Samphir, the Seed Applied Solutions marketing manager at Monsanto. “Part of the challenge is ensuring the entire biological sector is maintained to a high level of standard when it comes to substantiating claims with good data,” he says.

Kevin Groening is the ag pilot and manager at Arty’s Air Service, an aerial application service and chemical and seed retail in Winkler, Man. Groening has been selling biologicals to producers in the potato industry for the last couple of years.

As an agri-retailer, he agrees that the most common concern among producers with biologicals is their effectiveness and whether they will receive a return on their investments.

“It’s still an emerging market and I think there are lots of products that are coming. Companies seem to be investing a lot in that field and it’s good to have some experience in it before, not just writing it off,” he says. “If it fits with your customers, gives them results and at the end of the day it gives them a return on investment – then that’s our goal as a retailer. It’s not for everybody. I find that the grower has to be in tune for it. They want to find a solution for a problem where they’re not satisfied with the current treatments and they can do it in a different way,” he says. “They have to have a broader outlook and not just write it off.” 

What Lies Ahead

The science surrounding biologicals is constantly evolving and developing, with new advancements being made every day.

Anderson says that one of the advantages of biologicals becoming more mainstream is there’s more demand for robust and reliable science to back them up. “I think they’re actually getting
a better grounding in some of the science,” she says.

She says the future of biologicals is dependent on the challenges that producers face. Farming is becoming more complex each year, with climate change impacting the problems producers have to deal with.

“If the biologics can provide a solution for those problems going forward and it requires a shift in the way they conduct their business, then they might do it and then it can play a very significant role,” says Anderson. “But it will really be, ‘Can they solve a problem or can they contribute to a solution?’”

With good, solid efficacy, Brown predicts that the adoption of biologicals will be “rampant” in the near future. But he warns that biologicals are not going to be a “silver bullet technology.”

Like Brown and Anderson, Monsanto’s Samphir only sees room for growth. “We’re only at the beginning stages of understanding the importance of the impact that biologicals can have on a grower’s operation,” he says. “It’s a natural opportunity in the future.”

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