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Using biopesticides for natural agricultural pest management is not a new concept. But one contemporary biopesticide development company has found that for its chemical control alternatives to become large-scale successes with organic and conventional producers alike, it must march to the tune of a different drummer.

"The perception has long been that biopesticides are not as good as chemicals, and in the past that has been the case for some products," says Pam Marrone, president and chief executive officer of AgraQuest Inc., Davis, Calif. "Companies with diverse interests have focused only on the environmental benefits of getting their biopesticide products to market. We’ve taken a different approach."

Marrone contends that for organic and conventional farmers to enjoy widespread biopesticide use, such products must equal or even exceed performance of their competition. "We focus on the reliability, shelf life and performance of biopesticides, as well as the environmental benefits," she explains. "From the start, we set a high standard for discovery research and select only those products that stack up against conventional chemical treatments."

Marrone, who with two others created AgraQuest in 1995, is a veteran of the industry. "This is my lifelong interest," she says about the new generation of biopesticides. Marrone also founded Entotech Inc., a biopesticide business unit of Novo Nordisk, in the early 1990s, and worked for Monsanto during the 1980s as part of the team instrumental in developing Bt crops.

Today, AgraQuest focuses on the discovery of two types of biological pesticides found in nature - microbes and naturally occurring products that interfere with pest growth or reproduction. AgraQuest researchers screen possible products for safety, efficacy and commercial potential in any number of crops for the control of pests including bacteria, fungi, caterpillars and insects.

AgraQuest’s screening process identifies about three products that work as well as chemicals for every 5,000 microbes tested, Marrone explains. In comparison, chemical companies screen 20,000 to 200,000 potential chemicals to find a single new product to meet government regulations.

Such screening advantages may be well-timed. Marrone says pest resistance, government regulations - including the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) - and growing public skepticism about biotechnology are pressuring the crop protection industry to find viable alternatives to chemistry. Biological pesticides have multiple modes of action, are natural, non-toxic and non-biotech.

"One of our scientists has referred to our work as a movement in the symphony of integrated pest management (IPM)," she says. "Consequently, we have used that as our theme in developing brand names for our products."

AgraQuest is beginning to offer a "concert" of products, including Serenade and Rhapsody biofungicides, which already are on the market. Sonata biofungicide, Forte Bt enhancer and Virtuoso bioinsecticide are scheduled for release during the next couple of years.

"Developing effective and environmentally safe pesticides takes a fraction of the time and cost needed to produce conventional pesticides," Marrone says. "We can bring a natural pest management product to market in approximately three years for about $6 million, compared to new chemical pesticides, which can take up to 10 years to register for use and at least $100 million."

Marrone points out that even with the environmental, economic and efficacy benefits of biopesticides, in the long run they will likely complement the traditional crop protection market rather than overtake it. "It is doubtful our products will ever see widespread use in corn and soybeans, for example, because transgenic crops are silver bullets," she explains. "We are not likely to try and compete with what already works very well for those farmers.

"We are still under the radar of most chemical companies, but some are starting to take notice of the real potential of biopesticides," Marrone continues. "We will partner with Rohm and Haas Co. on some new product launches in the future."

Biopesticides already have struck a chord with many producers, she says, especially those in specialty markets such as grapes, hops, peanuts, walnuts and vegetables.

"Farmers seem to appreciate that they don’t have to worry about environmental issues," she says, "but they are most surprised by the performance of these products as compared to the chemicals they have been using."

Marrone says biopesticides have a bright future. "Conventional farmers will appreciate the activity and safety of these products, and organic farmers will be able to broaden their pest control arsenal with those biopesticides registered for the organic market. I’m very optimistic," she concludes. AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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