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Subject: Pesticides' clean break

Pesticides' clean break written by Pam Marrone

A new class of natural pesticides is ready to claim the field, but first, farmers will have to break 50 years of chemical dependency. July 20, 2004

When scientist Pam Marrone founded AgraQuest in 1995, she wanted to prove that biopesticides - derived from natural sources like plants and microorganisms - could work just as well as their chemical counterparts.

Today, AgraQuest has developed an arsenal of natural alternatives to traditional pesticides that Ms. Marrone says work just as well as chemicals and cost less to produce. But her products, and those of other biopesticide companies, have yet to crack 5 percent of a market still dominated by traditional synthetic pesticides.

But the tide may be turning for biopesticide companies, thanks to an increasing interest in alternative products, brought on by environmental concerns, rising chemical prices, and growers' response to burgeoning customer demand.

First, however, they must combat more than 50 years of chemical dependency among farmers, and navigate an industry dominated by giant chemical corporations, including Dow, DuPont, Shell, and Monsanto - companies that often provide funding to universities to test pesticides.

"I'm not saying that their results are given to them by the chemical company, but at the same time, results occur that don't make a lot of sense."

Chemical's weapons

Biopesticide companies claim that these university researchers are often biased toward deep-pocketed chemical giants, and reluctant to modify their tests to accommodate biological alternatives. The researchers counter that chemicals simply work better. "Many large companies take researchers on trips to Hawaii or other places," says Ms. Marrone - perks that smaller companies can't afford. Researchers deny receiving blatant gifts like free vacations, and are often required to disclose funds provided by chemical manufacturers. "The chemical industry has a long history of supporting academic research," says Wade Elmer, a plant pathologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. But that doesn't necessarily mean university researchers are in the industry's pocket. "We try our best to be as unbiased as we can," he says.

a.. Chris Hayes, director of technical services and marketing for BioWorks, a biopesticide company based in Fairport, New York, claims that a bias does exist among researchers, but not simply because they're paid by chemical companies. Mr. Hayes was a researcher at Cornell University, where BioWorks' technology was developed and licensed. "I'm not saying that their results are given to them by the chemical company, but at the same time, results occur that don't make a lot of sense," he says. Lab tests are often set up in ways that differ completely from actual conditions in the field, and from the way that farmers actually use them. And researchers do sometimes get free vacations from chemical companies in order to promote the results of chemical tests, and attend workshops or presentations, says Mr. Hayes. The funds for the trips are included in the overall grants that companies provide to universities, which could be anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few million. Last year, the University of California at Berkeley College of Natural Resources received $100,000 from Dow Agrosciences, $66,000 from Syngenta Crop Protection, and $25,000 from Monsanto. Most of the money went to the Vernard Lewis Pest Research Fund, which tests pesticides and products designed to kill termites. When asked whether large amounts of funding from chemical corporations introduced any bias in test results, Mr. Lewis, an etymologist, says such accusations were "another one of those myths." Even if an individual researcher may be tempted to skew results based on funding, Mr. Lewis says that the system of peer review, in which scientists evaluate each other's research, would prevent such bias from occurring. "Peer review is brutal," he says. "If I try and slip anything past my colleagues, they'll rake me over the coals." While Mr. Lewis may not test herbicides and fungicides, he experiences the same financial barriers that plague many university researchers. He says that corporate funding is absolutely necessary for state-run universities with increasingly tight budgets, but that doesn't mean researchers feel indebted to the donors. Ms. Marrone says the financial incentives are standard practice for a group of corporations determined to maintain their share of a shrinking market for synthetic pesticides. According to Allan Woodburn Associates, a market research firm which tracks agricultural expenditures, the worldwide market for crop protection chemicals has shrunk about 2 percent annually since 1999. Taking into account inflation and exchange rates, expenditures have fallen from around $30 billion in 1999 to $29.4 billion in 2003 - not a huge decline, unless you consider the sharply rising prices of chemicals. The amount of chemicals used has actually declined much more than the dollar figures suggest - leaving a hole that biopesticide companies are eager to fill. Natural pesticides are still victim to an industry built around chemicals, according to Ms. Marrone. AgraQuest, along with a group of about 30 natural pesticide companies, are fighting an uphill battle against chemical giants, the researchers familiar with testing their products, and farmers accustomed to using them.

Agriculture 101

"In the past, biologicals have been considered snake oils," says Mr. Hayes. "If we were selling snake oil, we wouldn't still be in business." Ms. Marrone says that AgraQuest's products are equal or superior to chemical pesticides in virtually every aspect: they perform just as well, leave no chemical residue, and can be sprayed right up until harvest time. Natural pesticides are much less harmful to people and the environment, prolong the time it takes for pests to develop a resistance to them, and cost significantly less money and time to develop - about $6 to $10 million and about three years from the lab to the market, compared to $150 to $200 million and seven to 10 years for chemical pesticides. It sounds like an easy sell, but it hasn't been. Biopesticide companies still face a high degree of skepticism among farmers and the university testers who play an important role in agricultural practices. Margery Daughtrey, a plant pathologist at Cornell University, says that testers act as an important form of marketing for pesticide companies, by working directly with growers and recommending products that perform well. Ms. Daughtrey denies that funding from chemical companies sways her results in any way. She says that in Cornell's case, any gift from large chemical companies "is made in support of the program in general, and not in return for services rendered. That helps keep the results objective." Although Ms. Marrone says that Cornell is "perhaps the most objective university of all," she disagrees that the funding supplied by the companies is not in return for services rendered. "The money may go to the university, but it does find its way to the researcher's program," says Ms. Marrone. She knows this because AgraQuest does the same thing, though to a much lesser degree. "We give money specifically for field trials and the researchers conduct them for us," says Ms. Marrone. Whether or not university researchers feel indebted to chemical giants, Ms. Daughtrey allows that the testing system in general favors chemicals, if only because the tests are primarily designed for them.

Sit's how you use it

a.. "It's easier for a chemical products to look good in our trials," says Ms. Daughtrey, because chemicals work better with extreme levels of pests. It's difficult to engineer a pesticide test that doesn't involve a high concentration of pathogen - whereas in nature, they may occur at much lower levels. Chemicals typically perform much better in this kind of "acid test," says Ms. Daughtrey, while natural pesticides may work just as well in a more realistic, low-level model. Even so, researchers like Ms. Daughtrey say that they try harder to give natural products a fighting chance. "I don't think it's skepticism," she says. "If anything, there's a real interest in seeing them perform well." Ms. Daughtrey doesn't see it as a problem of complicity among researchers that gives chemicals an advantage, but simply the fact that it's more difficult to do good research with natural products. She also says that researchers feel that natural manufacturers don't do enough to help researchers modify their tests. While Ms. Marrone admits that there's some validity to that point, she says smaller companies simply don't have the time and resources to help enough. "We work with the researchers all the time to help them use our products," says Ms. Marrone. "However, due to having smaller resources, small companies cannot do all the hand-holding that may be required." Without their help, researchers are free to follow their own methods - which Ms. Marrone says usually benefit chemicals.

a.. "What we have found is that quite a few of the researchers actually don't follow the protocol we like and we know works. They have strong ideas about how to do it their way," says Ms. Marrone. a.. Mr. Hayes also says that testers will often modify the testing directions given to them by biopesticide companies, which could negatively impact the results. Jeff Alicandro, an agricultural consultant with Agr.Assistance and an independent tester, says that the only bias is toward products that work. "If anything, I think that people are more interested in trying to help natural products get going," he says. Mr. Elmer also denies that testers are in any way biased, and says that biological pesticides simply don't work as well as chemicals. "The companies are making great improvements in trying to make these more consistent, but they're still not there yet," he says. Despite any lackluster performance in the lab, some farmers are already sold on natural products. Anthony Owens, owner of Windy Ridge Farms in North Carolina, uses AgraQuest's products, along with other natural pesticides, on his apple crops. Windy Ridge Farms was the first certified commercial organic apple grower in North Carolina. Mr. Owens says that natural products work just as well as chemicals, with only two drawbacks: They cost two to three times more than chemicals, and they don't have the residual control. Although many biologicals cost about the same as newer chemicals per gallon, Mr. Owens says he has to use more of the natural product for adequate protection. With natural products, he has to spray every five to 10 days, depending on the weather, but would only have to spray a chemical every 14 to 20 days. Organic farmers are able to pay the higher prices for biologicals because consumers are willing to pay higher prices for the natural products. Mr. Owens says his neighbors in the agricultural industry haven't been as open to using natural products. "When you mention the word organic or low-risk products, they automatically look at you kind of funny," says Mr. Owens. Their skepticism is the result of years of experience. Most natural products in the past haven't performed well enough to be considered as a replacement for chemicals, says Mr. Alicandro. Farmers are more skeptical when anything new comes along, particularly of products with a "natural" label.

There is one exception.

DiPel, made from the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium and manufactured by Liberty, Illinois-based Valent Biosciences (now owned by Japanese chemical company Sumitomo) has been on the market for more than 30 years. Mr. Alicandro says that most farmers use DiPel every year, either mixing it with conventional pesticides or alternating between DiPel and chemicals. Other companies trying to take advantage of a growing interest in biopesticides include Lansing, Michigan-based Emerald Bioagriculture, and Suterra, based in Bend, Oregon.

A natural revolution Though natural pesticides have yet to compete heavily with chemicals, their market share is slowly expanding. Mr. Hayes says that Bioworks' revenues have grown more than 20 percent per year over the last few years. "Some are changing because they're safer, other growers are changing because the chemicals are no longer working," says Mr. Hayes. Farmers, eager to keep a socially conscious public image, are starting to pay attention to growing public concern about human and environmental health. Growers will do anything to allay public fears about the harmful environmental effects of chemicals, says Mr. Alicandro. According to the EPA, 1 billion pounds of active ingredients in conventional pesticides are used in the U.S. each year - more than enough to pose serious risks to both human health and ecosystems, according to the EPA.

a.. Methyl bromide, once a highly popular fumigant, is currently being phased out of use entirely because of its role in ozone depletion. Some pesticides release cancer-causing agents into the air and water, others affect the nervous system of animals and humans they come in contact with, and others may irritate the ears, eyes, and nasal passages. Though biopesticide technology has improved dramatically in recent years, agribusiness experts don't see natural pesticides becoming the dominant player in the market anytime soon. "In the immediate future, I think they're going to gain market share, but I doubt if they will surpass synthetics," says Agr.Assistance's Mr. Alicandro. But AgraQuest and other biopesticide companies may need more than market share to survive - they need to avoid being stepped on by the chemical Goliaths. "It isn't like the synthetic industry is sitting still, they're making all sorts of progress also," says Mr. Alicandro. DuPont's crop protection division has invited university researchers to submit biological compounds to the company, so that DuPont can develop with more environmentally friendly pesticides. If the large chemical companies don't feel like developing natural products on their own, they'll just buy them. Sumitomo Chemical now owns Valent Bioscience, the largest biopesticide manufacturer, and Mitsui Chemical acquired Certis USA, the second largest company.

a.. Around Windy Ridge Farms in North Carolina, farmers are beginning to realize that natural pesticides are the way to go. "We've been at this for three years now, and only just now [other growers] have started to get on board," says Mr. Owens. "They're realizing that this is the way of the future."