By Antônio Carlos Zem* in collaboration with Tedson L. F. Azevedo**
What is the future of agriculture?
If we look back, we will be able to remember that the use of agrochemicals and industrialized mineral fertilizers has brought increases in crop productivity and, consequently, a notable increase in food production and supply worldwide.
Given the technological evolution and the search for new alternatives to pest control, biological products have become an economical and technically viable tool for growers. This does not mean that agrochemicals will be completely replaced by biological products. Instead, they are meant to act in a synergetic way regarding integrated pest management, plant nutrition, and plant growth promotion practices.
Biological control and agrochemicals, as well as other tools related to integrated pest management practices, must compose the set of control action measures used by growers in order to achieve high efficiency levels regarding pest and disease control, reducing damage to crops and allowing them to increase their economic returns.
The market for biological solutions used to be considered small and inefficient, and oftentimes related to inconsistent quality. Recently, given the growing interest of multinational corporations, new businesses, innovative technologies regarding the production and conservation of microorganisms, and greater capital for investments as a differentiation strategy, it is expected the introduction of a new range of products on the market. In fact, BIOTROP’s strategic focus on biologicals consists in providing not only to growers, but also to the entire chain involved in the production and commercialization of food with integrated solutions that allow them to increase their productivity and profitability in a sustainable way
The international market for biologicals has grown five times as fast as the agrochemical industry. Between 2011 and 2019, the international market for such products had an average annual growth of 15.3%. This was due to investments, since the cost of developing a new agrochemical is extremely high (US$ 286 mi), whereas the cost for biological products would be a fraction of such an amount of money. In addition, society and regulatory bodies demand the production of foods with no residues. Based on this context, by alternating the use of biological products and agrochemicals, it is possible to apply the former aiming to control pests and diseases at the end of the crop cycle, once the application of the latter is limited because of the maximum residue limits and grace period.
Another advantage regarding the introduction of biological products in the management consists in the extension of the shelf life of the active ingredients of agrochemicals, that is, the estimated time for the target to develop resistance or the period in which the active ingredient loses its effectiveness when it comes to controlling pests and diseases. Biologicals represent new, broad, and complex mechanisms of action, for which the evolution of pest and disease resistance is less problematic. In view of the fact that the launch of new chemical molecules has occurred in a more slowly and costly way, maintaining the high efficiency of the current molecules is crucial regarding sustainability in agriculture. In this sense, the integration with biologicals is important to slow the evolution of resistance and prolong the shelf life of these compounds.
Biological products are expected to show robust growth and provide efficient and sustainable alternatives to growers. They are an efficient tool to protect the high investments in seeds and profitability of growers. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, in which biological products play an important role, have been adopted lately. The market trend is that biological products coexist in harmony with agrochemicals.
Changes in the profile of biological products and the exponential increase in their use, migrating from niches to market consolidation, reaching the most important crops, depend on the evolution of formulations and production processes. In order to be successful, the formulation of biological products must rely less and less on differentiated logistics for transportation, storage and application. This will only be possible with massive investments in technology.
We firmly believe that biological solutions will grow steadily in the crop protection market. This segment is evolving and the most important factors consist in demand for integrated solutions, increased regulatory pressure, and development of biotechnologies. Biologicals allow growers to maintain not only the pace of business evolution, but also its long-term economic and financial viability.
Biologicals of fungal or bacterial origin play a transforming and growing role in soil regeneration. For years, agricultural practices have not coped with maintaining the amount and diversity of microorganisms in the soil, causing the reduction of these:
opening of new areas of cultivation on native vegetation, fires, management practices that led to the reduction of organic matter content of the soil, and the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides have played an important role in this scenario.
We now have a unique opportunity to bring abundant and diverse life forms back to the soil through this new technology of bioproducts combined with good production and soil conservation and management practices. Thus, we have contributed so that basic principles and conditions of associative and symbiotic relationships between plants and microorganisms are reestablished with more intensity, diversity and durability, ensuring more voluminous, developed and healthier root systems – being able to explore a larger amount of soil, consequently absorbing more water and nutrients stored in areas that were not previously accessible.
Soils rich in solubilizing enzymes from previously insoluble nutrients, more structured, more resistant to erosion processes, with greater capacity for water infiltration and gas exchange are contributions of the activities of soil microorganisms that surround the rhizosphere. Biological fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is only possible due to a specific group of bacteria that have this ability, as well as the synthesis of phytohormones that stimulate root and plant growth.
It is now possible to produce bacteria that are specialized in solubilizing unavailable phosphorus and making it available to plants through an industrial process, which is highly feasible and efficient. Fungi and bacteria that attack nematodes produce enzymes that prevent eggs from hatching (ovicides); synthesize and excrete metabolites (that act on young and adult forms), which are efficient and have been used in thousands of hectares across Brazil.
Benefits have to be mutual, a two-way street. Microorganisms protect plants from pathogens and plants provide them with food (i.e., amino acids and sugars) through root exudates. That is the reason why plants need voluminous and robust roots, without any physical, chemical and biological barriers against their growth.
The occupation of plant sites (leaves and roots) by beneficial microorganisms – providing plants with a defense “barrier” against pathogenic microorganisms, insects and nematodes – are characteristics associated with the harmonic relationship that have always influenced on the gene manifestation of the productive potential of cultivated plants.
Finally, we are on the threshold of a new era for biologicals, in which the identification, selection, evaluation and production of new microorganisms will likely gain an unprecedented scale, resulting in stable formulations that have prolonged shelf life, with a positive and expressive impact on the perception and adoption of this biotechnological tool by entrepreneurs and growers. BIOTROP is part of this biotransformation.
* BIOTROP’S CEO/TOTAL BIO; M.Sc. Ph.D.
** Market Development Supervisor; M.Sc. Ph.D.