Biological Pest Control Shows Great Promise

Five companies are bringing new sustainable pest control technologies to market to help satisfy consumer preferences.
Biological Pest Control Shows Great Promise
Researchers at BioPhero in Denmark are using pheromones to decrease moth populations.
If agriculture made wanted posters for profit-robbing pests, Palmer amaranth, Colorado potato beetles and Rhizoctonia would undoubtedly have their mug shots posted on farms, at ag retail locations and along roadsides across the country. That’s why five startup companies are intently pursuing innovative biological solutions to help combat these and other costly pests.
Read more about the 5 #ag companies that are bringing new #sustainable biological pest control technologies to market.

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Breaking the Seed Cycle

A biological reproduction blocker spray that targets Palmer amaranth with a new mode of action (MOA) is expected to launch in 2023 for use in corn, soybeans and cotton, according to Efrat Lidor Nili, co-CEO and co-founder of Israel-based WeedOUT.

Biologicals help improve crop yields and quality, which, in turn, helps growers deliver healthy and affordable feed and food products to consumers around the globe.

Shiri Ailon
Syngenta Ventures
“We chose to focus on Palmer amaranth first because it’s ranked as the most troublesome weed in the U.S. by the Weed Science Society of America,” she says.

The weed can grow up to 3 inches per day and produce up to a million seeds per plant. It has caused yield losses of up to 91% in corn and 79% in soybeans, and herbicide resistance is a big problem. “Our product mimics the weed’s natural reproduction mechanism, providing a solution with a low chance of resistance development,” Lidor Nili says.

WeedOUT’s technology is based on the development of unique proprietary weed pollen, which growers will apply during weed flowering to prevent the generation of viable seed. The solution acts specifically on the weed and does not target the crop. WeedOUT’s second product will aim to work on waterhemp.

Buzzing About Biological Insect Control

Ribonucleic acid (RNA), present in all living cells, has been considered a potential tool for insect protection for years. Up until now, however, it has been too cost-prohibitive to use. But the scientists at GreenLight Biosciences in Medford, Massachusetts, developed a more economical method to produce high-quality, double-strand RNA that can be developed to control insects and fungi.

Without sharing trade secrets, Research and Development Director Ron Flannagan says, “Now that the cost hurdle has been overcome, we are creating environmentally friendly products for farmers that are effective and fit into their budgets.”

While the company doesn’t have a product on the market yet, it predicts it will within two years. “Our first bioinsecticide will represent a new MOA and targets control of Colorado potato beetles,” Flannagan says. “In 2019, we had a very robust testing program across the U.S. and made significant advancements in determining the proper rates and application methods.”

This foliar spray product will kill insects after they consume a portion of leaf tissue.

Up next? A bioinsecticide for corn, soybeans and specialty crops, and a disease-control product for fruits and vegetables.

Ripping Up Rhizoctonia

Leaves, dead insects, soil and roots that AgBiome employees collect from all 50 states and Africa are the base for the company’s new biological crop protection products. Howler®, its new biological microbe fungicide, attacks soilborne diseases, including Pythium, Rhizoctonia, gray mold (Botrytis) and mildews, in a broad range of fruits and vegetables. It has multiple MOAs and combines well with existing chemical fungicides. Howler is available to growers now

The environmental samples that AgBiome collects are processed in its labs. “Then we extract most of the microbes that are present and archive them,” says Co-Founder and Co-CEO Eric Ward. “From that large archive, we isolate individual strains of bacteria that look promising. And from there, we’ve learned how to produce a naturally occurring bacterial organism in large quantities and stabilize it by formulation.”

The company has more than 80,000 individual bacterial strains isolated and is pushing to get that number to more than 1 million within three years. AgBiome conducts complete genome sequencing on each isolated bacterium. This year, the company is running extensive field trials to determine label recommendations in row crops, where Howler has shown promising activity.

Battling Bugs Using Pheromones

BioPhero, a Danish agricultural biotech company, has developed an economically feasible product to decrease pest populations and pesticide resistance using manufactured female sex pheromones that disrupt insects’ natural mating cycles.

“We have a fermentation-based bioproduction platform that creates yeast cells, which, in turn, produce the pheromones,” says BioPhero CEO Kristian Ebbensgaard.

Pheromones are chemical signal molecules used by insects, particularly moths, to attract their mating partners. The females emit them when they are ready to breed. When insect pheromones are sprayed onto fields, the males become confused and are unable to locate their true partners, leaving the females unfertilized. This process is known as mating disruption.

“Pheromones have been used on fruits and vegetables. But, up until now, it hasn’t been economically feasible to manufacture them for large acreages of corn, cotton, rice and soybeans,” Ebbensgaard explains.

Using a single-step proprietary process, the company can produce enough pheromones to meet the demand in row crops.

“The longer the pheromones are applied, the better they control insects because the benefits become cumulative year after year,” Ebbensgaard says.

Delivering a New MOA

A company in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, focuses on developing environmentally friendly bioinsecticides with efficacy comparable to synthetics. Vestaron uses a small protein, a peptide, to develop a family of bioinsecticides with a new MOA.

“Vestaron’s new family of insecticides, based on the Spear® peptide, acts on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor,” President and CEO Anna Rath says. Spear products target a different receptor site than the existing classes of chemistry do, which helps to manage resistance. “And because they are proteins, they degrade to amino acids that benefit the soil,” Rath adds.

The company currently markets two Spear brand products. Spear-Lep manages caterpillars, loopers and worms on hemp, fruits, nuts, ornamentals, tobacco and vegetables. Spear-T controls four major greenhouse pests — aphids, spider mites, thrips and whiteflies.

Fostering Innovation

All five of these innovative companies are in the portfolio of Syngenta Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of Syngenta Group.

“We want to have a role in providing the best products and value-added solutions for our customers,” says Shiri Ailon, head of Syngenta Ventures. “The increase in adoption of natural products is driving the growth of the agricultural biological market. Biologicals help improve crop yields and quality, which, in turn, helps growers deliver healthy and affordable feed and food products to consumers around the globe.”

While traditional chemical control options will continue to play vital roles on most farms, biologicals can supplement growers’ pest control strategies and give them more tools in their crop protection toolboxes.

Launched in 2009, Syngenta Ventures is one of the first corporate venture capital teams dedicated to agriculture. Its team of professionals makes investments across North America, Europe, Latin America, Israel, India and China with a common theme of helping growers become more profitable while positively impacting the future of agriculture.