Bayer CropScience mobile lab touts crop protection

Jan. 14, 2013 @ 12:29 AM

A mobile laboratory rolled onto Bayer CropScience’s Research Triangle Park site last week to show off the science behind products that company officials say can be used in organic crop production. The company acquired the line through the purchase of a California-based business last year.
The products, referred to as biologics, are developed using naturally-occurring organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, or plant extracts. The company completed the acquisition California-based AgraQuest, a global provider of biological pest management products, in August for $425 million, plus milestone payments.
Bayer Crop Science, a crop science company that products seeds, genetically modified crop plant traits, as well as crop protection products, is a subgroup of the German materials and pharmaceutical company Bayer AG.
Sarah Reiter, director of global product management for biologics for Bayer CropScience, who previously worked for AgraQuest, said the company’s historical strength in crop protection has been in chemically synthesized products. In contrast, biologics are sourced naturally. They can be used in organic crop production, she said.
They fit some “very interesting markets,” Reiter said, where consumers have expressed a need for sustainable agriculture. That’s in parts of the United States, in Europe, and in parts of Asia, she said.
“It’s increasingly defined by a consumer, and we want to be leading that conversation,” she said. “The acquisition puts Bayer CropScience in a leadership position in this space.”
Before the acquisition of AgraQuest, Reiter said Bayer CropScience had a biologics business built around a seed treatment  combining a biological product to kill plant-parasitic nematodes called Votivo, and the insecticide Poncho, which protects seedlings against a root-eating soil insect. Almost all of the work on that project was done in the Research Triangle Park, she said.
With the acquisition of AgraQuest, the company’s biologics product line now includes the fungicide Serenade Soil, as well as several other fungicide and insecticide brands.
“By definition, biologics are based on naturally occurring organisms,” Reiter said. “In the case of Votivo, it’s beneficial bacteria … in the case of several other products, it’s also beneficial bacteria, or fungi, it can be plant extracts.”
In the mobile lab, Nivashni Veerasamy used images and other props to explain the science behind the fungicide Serenade Soil. The product is meant to protect young plants against certain soil diseases, and can be mixed in a tank with other fungicides or fertilizers and applied using existing spray or application equipment.
Becca Hogan, a spokeswoman for Bayer CropScience, said the mobile lab was mainly scheduled to visit grower-focused shows to market the biological products line. It also stopped at the company’s RTP site to show the products to employees and others.
In Serenade Soil, Veerasamy said spores of a bacterium colonize a plant root and create a biofilm that acts as a physical disease barrier. They also produce anti-fungal and anti-bacterial chemicals.
Kelly Ivors, associate professor and extension specialist in N.C. State University’s plant pathology department, said there’s a “big demand” now for this kind “greener” product. She said in certain situations, what she calls biological control products can be “rather effective.”
“I’ve tested a number of them, in certain situations, not all, but in certain situations, they can be just as effective as the conventional, chemically-synthetically based agrichemicals and things like that,” she said.
Ivors said one of the issues with biologics is that certain chemically synthesized products may impact the effectiveness of certain biologics if they have live microbes in them and the products are used together. She also said synthetic products can have longer shelf-lives, and biologics may need to be applied more often.
As far as their impact on the environment, she said that depends on the product. There were older insecticides that were “broad spectrum,” and “killed everything.” But she said new chemically-synthesized products are targeted toward specific organisms. In general, she said biocontrol products are “probably a little bit nicer” in terms of their effect on biodiversity.
“You can call them greener in certain aspects, but it’s really dependent on how they’re used,” she said. “You definitely don’t want to dump (them) down a river, or put them where (they) shouldn’t be used. None of them would be greener.”
Wayne G. Buhler, a professor and pesticide education specialist N.C. State’s Department of Horticulture Science, said in an email that screening for biological control products may be fast-tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reiter said that the EPA does have a separate registration procedure for biologic products that has lower data requirements. In general, she said the EPA review of them takes about two years.
“This serves as a motivation for agrichemical companies to provide growers with the pest control tools they need as alternatives in a rotation scheme with other chemicals (preventing or delaying resistance),” she said.
Buhler also said they’re considered more “green” because of their natural original. He said that in general, they’re more costly to produce, and are thereby more expensive. They are usually short-lived in the environment, and must be applied frequently, especially with rainy weather.
“Certainly, Bayer has taken a big step with this acquisition,” he said.
Reiter said in an email response to questions that some biologics, since some are based on fungi or bacteria, can be impacted by conventional fungicides. But she said Serenade Soil and another brands are not affected by conventional pesticides.
She also said that historically, some biologics have short shelf lives, and are more expensive, but defended the company’s own biological control products, saying they generally cost the same, are stored the same, and are used the same.
They’re applied just like conventional products, she added, and are best alternated with chemically synthesized products.
“To best combat resistance, growers should alternative crop protection products with different modes of action,” she said. “Biologics offer a different approach to resistance management because biologics often combine multiple modes of action in a single product.”