Biopesticides Show Promise for Modern AgricultureSeptember 13th, 2018
Cornucopia’s Take: Medical cannabis use has brought more attention to the issue of pesticide residues. People with compromised health want to ensure they are not subjected to toxic residues on the plant, and some companies have stepped in to offer effective pesticides in the form of living microorganisms and natural chemicals. These biopesticides are often cheaper and may work better than synthetic pesticides like glyphosate. We will continue to monitor the evolution of these products.
Cannabis Is Creating A Boom For Biological Pesticides
by Janet Burns
As legal cannabis farms take the spotlight, safer methods of pest control are also taking root in more ‘mainstream’ agriculture.
With more states enacting medicinal and adult recreational cannabis laws each year, health officials have increasingly warned about the potential hazards of products made from crops treated with certain chemicals. In particular, chemical pesticides have been identified as a threat to cannabis consumers’ health, with potential risks that can vary depending on whether products are eaten, smoked, vaped, or topically applied.
As such, cannabis has joined a broader conversation about the dangers of spraying the crops we grow. Just this month, health officials noted that current widely used pesticides can show up in popular food products at arguably unsafe levels, and are likely tied to the ongoing drop in environmentally critical bee populations.
Regulators point out that there aren’t any pesticide products with federal approval specific to cannabis yet, but states like California and Colorado have set forth lists of acceptable and unacceptable methods under their own laws. Those seemingly safer methods include common substances like citric acid and sulfur as well as numerous biopesticides, which use living microorganisms and certain natural chemicals to fight plants’ tiny pests.
According to Pam Marrone, founder and CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations(MBI), these kinds of bio-methods have the potential to protect consumers, crop revenues, and the environment on a whole new level — and cannabis farms could help lead the way to this all-around greener future.
Throughout her distinguished career, Marrone has worked and led projects at some of the world’s leading research institutions and chemical giants, but her passion for using safer, more constructive forms of pest control and plant care began much earlier.
In a recent phone interview, Marrone explained that she grew up on 40 acres of farmland in southern Connecticut, where tree-threatening gypsy moth caterpillars were seen “marauding through the forests” every five-to-seven years. Once, to save a dogwood tree outside the family’s kitchen window, her father sprayed a toxic chemical that killed not only the moths but also the bees, lady beetles, and lacewings nearby.
“My mom was really angry and banned him from using it again,” Marrone said. “So he went to the farm store and bought the first-ever commercialized biopesticide, BT, based on a soil bacteria that kills caterpillars but is safe to the environment and other organisms. He said, ‘It’s great for the environment, it makes your mother happy, but I’m not sure it worked.'”
In the decades since, Marrone has worked continuously to develop and promote such biologically based methods for deterring pests and strengthening plants, including during intrapreneurial stints at Monsanto and Abbott Labs.
In 2006, she founded MBI in order to “discover and develop effective and environmentally responsible, biologically-based products for pest management and plant health,” and his since taken the company public and shown impressive sales growth to date.
And unlike the biopesticides her father switched over to using a generation ago, the various suites of pest-fighting microbes Marrone’s team produces are now well-documented to work.
In many cases, biopesticides have also been shown to work better than popular chemical pesticides, which can not only be dangerous to humans and ecosystems but also quite limited in how they target pest populations.
“A key strength that biologicals bring across the board, and a part of all technologies we offer, is having different modes of action, typically multiple modes of action in a single microbe,” Marrone said.
“One reason people ran into problems with ‘Roundup Ready’ corn is that it relied on a single mode of action. The more often you use a single mode of action or pathway, the greater the risk of [pests] developing resistance to those methods.”
Biopesticides can also be used simultaneously, Marrone said, or used to treat multiple pest problems by themselves. For example, products will contain carefully chosen bacteria and supportive natural minerals that will treat for plant diseases, but also combat root-destroying nematodes by stopping them laying eggs.
“A lot of companies will build a product around one microbe. We built a whole suite, a broad portfolio that crosses the full range of growers’ needs,” Marrone said.
The archetypal mongooses-in-Hawaii scenario of environmental control methods spinning out of control isn’t a concern with microbiotic products, either. In fact, to keep their tiny pesticidal and fungicidal critters alive long enough to do their jobs, Marrone said, MBI effectively has to bathe them in sunscreen, among several other measures.
“The first [biopesticide] was commercialized probably 70 years ago, and there has never been a significant health or environmental event because of it. As a result, we now have a more streamlined approval process at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but it’s not easy.”
To get the agency’s approval, products must be successfully tested for a range of impacts in animals, humans, and native plant species over several ‘tiers,’ as with the testing process for chemicals. “People have been coating wheat, cotton, and other crops with chemical pesticides; now they can coat them with biological products.”
Marrone believes biopesticides can especially make the difference for farmers as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, which takes soil, surrounding plant species, and ‘good bugs’ into account to minimize the need for pesticides in general.
“In my own garden, I try to rarely use these things and mostly rely on other aspects of IPM, but sometimes infestations do break out. And if you’re producing food, and have the livelihood of a farmer to consider, sometimes you have to bring something in, even if you’ve used best regenerative agriculture and permaculture practices.”
In the years to come, there’s still plenty of innovation needed in the bio-pest control space in order to optimize crops and the resources we expend on them, Marrone said.
“One thing we haven’t cracked is weed control,” she noted. “[Crop pest control] is a $50 billion industry, and half of that is spent on weed killers.”
As Marrone pointed out, chemical herbicides like glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup, and which researchers recently tracked in common food products) have caused weeds across the country to develop resistance — sometimes even earning the name ‘superweeds.’
“We’re working on compounds to destroy resistant weeds, which is important for conventional farmers, but also accounts for the largest costs involved in organic farming,” Marrone explained. “Strawberry farmers in California may pay $2000 an acre to weed without chemicals, or cover that area with $50 worth of chemicals, so we’re really trying to crack that.”
“We’re already submitted ideas to the EPA for approval. Weeds are an exciting new area for this.”
In the mean time, MBI and other companies’ ranges of biological pesticides and fungicides are already used widely in organic and more mainstream agriculture, and adoption is rising quickly, Marrone said.
“Even though we’re a biological company, 70-to-80% of our sales go to traditional agricultural operators, who want to improve their ROI, decrease chemical residues for export markets, increase worker safety, and use our products to break pests’ resistance to [other] pesticides.”
Last year, MBI teamed up with Albaugh to treat 750,000 acres of row crops like corn, cotton, soy, and wheat; this year, the products are being used on millions of acres of crops, as well as by numerous cannabis operators that purchase them through MBI’s distributors.
As the legal cannabis industry keeps growing rapidly, the demand for products like Marrone’s have also climbed sky high. And her team couldn’t be happier about participating and finding new opportunities within the ‘green rush,’ or coordinating with regulators and operators to make it happen, she said.
Of course, at the end of the day, if American agriculture can grow safer and more bountiful thanks to an influx of cannabis farming and biological methods of controlling pests, it seemingly will be fair to say that everyone’s a winner.