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Natural Pesticides? Large-Scale Farmers Turn to Safer Products to Keep Their Plants Healthy

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It usually surprises people when I say that it's a great time to be in agriculture. While the number of farmers has declined significantly since our parents' generation, there's no denying that food prices are up, as are the prices for farmland. And the pressure is on to feed a world population growing from 6 billion to 9 billion. We all need to eat, and it seems that finally we're coming to realize how critical agriculture is.

But with the population booming and ever-increasing demands for development being made on our arable land, we've reached a dilemma: How do we provide more food to more people using fewer resources?

This question has become so controversial that every interest group seems to have a particular technology that is THE answer to global food issues, at the exclusion of all other systems or technologies. If genetically modified (GM) crops are the answer, say some, then organic production cannot be. Others claim big industrial agriculture can't be the answer, so small and local farming must be. Organic can feed the world, according to some, but then there is no room for GM crops.

When my big Ag friends fear 'local' and 'organic' will put them out of business, I laugh. Hardly. I say to them, "Don't you want consumers to be more connected to their food?" Anything that increases consumers' connection to food production is a good thing.

Pragmatically, we know that agriculture is not going to change overnight to one system or one technology. For years to come, there will be multiple ways to grow crops, with different systems and technologies coexisting. But you can be sure that any food production system that feeds 9 billion people has to be done sustainably -- taking into account the triple bottom line: people, planet and prosperity (or the three E's, according to others: social equity, environment and economics).

So sustainable farming has three key challenges:

1) It must be productive -- generating more food from finite natural resources

2) The food should be healthy, clean and marketable, with less waste than the way we farm currently

3) The way we grow our food must have reduced impact -- being safer for workers, neighbors and consumers, as well as preserving natural resources with less reliance on non-renewable resources (like petroleum)

That's where biopesticides come in. Unlike synthetic options, biopesticides are naturally occurring products derived from materials like plants and microorganisms (think bacteria and fungi). In most cases, biopesticides are less toxic than conventional pesticides, making the food safer for people who eat it and those who grow it. In fact, products like Regalia -- a fungicide from my company, Marrone Bio Innovations -- can be applied in the morning, with workers safely returning to the fields by the afternoon.

Biopesticides generally affect only the target pests, compared to broad spectrum, conventional pesticides that may cause harm to birds, insects, mammals, and other organisms. They often decompose quickly, and reduce the likelihood that pests and plant pathogens will develop resistance. Using our products, farmers can grow crops with no synthetic chemical residues, allowing them access to the most profitable export markets in Europe, where regulators have implemented strict laws about chemical use on crops.

Chances are that when you open a bag of lettuce or spinach, they were grown using one of our natural products. So why haven't you heard of biopesticides?

While they've been around for 50 years, biopesticides remain the domain of small companies -- typically without the clout of multi-billion dollar global enterprises. As you can imagine, it has been difficult to get the word out and break through all the chatter.

But agriculture is changing. In the past five years, the biopesticide market has grown by more than 15 percent per year. Biopesticides now comprise almost 6 percent of the over $36 billion global pesticide market. At the same time, chemical pesticides have grown more slowly with inflation and commodity prices. Increasingly, Marrone Bio Innovations and other biopesticide companies have demonstrated that biopesticides, when incorporated into pest or plant disease programs, can improve efficacy, enhance yield, and be cost effective. In fact, while biopesticides can be used in organic farming, 90% of all biopesticides are used by conventional farmers.

The word is spreading. Consumers are demanding food that's safe for their children and the environment. Growers know that they face increasing regulations and pest resistance, and are looking for natural alternatives that maintain yields and the health of their plants. Biopesticides are part of a cost-effective, environmentally-responsible solution, and they're gaining steam.

Winning the Growing Green Business Leader Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council helps a small company like Marrone Bio Innovations break through a crowded pest management market. It's a huge honor, and increases awareness that biopesticides are viable, effective and sustainable technologies, ready now to meet sustainable food production needs and challenges for a growing population.

Meet the other 2011 Growing Green Award winners at www.nrdc.org/growinggreen.

Around the Web

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