Agtech Perspectives From Two Days With the Crop Chemicals Crowd

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Spraying chemicals on crops has been a standard farming practice for decades. Pesticides and fungicides aren’t going away, but they are ceding some ground to new biological products that aim to help plants in different ways.

The past year has seen market launches for microbial products developed to help plants resist stresses from pests and harsh environmental conditions. Some of this year’s corn, soy, and cotton crops have been grown with microbial treatments jointly developed by Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM) and Monsanto (NYSE: MON). Applied as seed coatings, the companies say these microbes grow with the plant, promoting a healthy plant microbiome that leads to hardier plants and better crop yields.

Beneficial microbes have the potential to be the next disruptive technology in agriculture, according to Roger Beachy, chair of the science advisory board for Indigo, a Boston agtech startup that has launched its own microbial treatments in five crops. Speaking Wednesday at the Crops & Chemicals Conference in Raleigh, NC, Beachy said Indigo’s approach is to study the microbes that are already in the plant microbiome and identify the ones that benefit a plant as a result of having jointly evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Rather than changing nature, Beachy says Indigo is working with what’s already there.

While I’m familiar with the work from Novozymes and Indigo, having written about those companies’ microbial R&D previously, I got a broader perspective about industry developments from Crops & Chemicals. The conference is held annually in Raleigh but this year was my first time in attendance. Here are some quick takeaways from two days spent mingling with innovators developing and testing new agricultural technologies.

Communicating the Science

Beachy remembers the introduction of genetically engineered crops in the late 1980s. Scientists and companies encountered challenges then (and they still do now) because some consumers don’t accept the technology. He hopes that the scientific and business communities better communicate the science of microbials in order to avoid those problems.

“The biggest disappointment of my life as a scientist is we have a good technology, but we can’t use it because it’s been demonized by the media,” Beachy said of genetic engineering.

Indigo’s work with microbes doesn’t change the microorganisms or alter a plant, Beachy said. Rather, the company aims to add back to the plant the microbes that have grown successfully alongside it. Beyond understanding the benefits of microbes, he said the startup is working to better understand the potential risks of changing the plant microbiome. Beachy said this responsibility falls to all companies conducting microbial research. If anything hazardous arises from a plant microbial product, a bad outcome for one company could tarnish the entire microbials field, Beachy said.

Customer-Driven Change

Consumers have become the driving force behind the products that companies are developing and the environmental benefits that they hope to achieve. Balakrishnan Prithiviraj, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia whose research focuses on plant stress, contends that microbials are not a new technology, they’re just newly interesting to agtech companies. Prithiviraj told me that from his perspective, more companies are now interested in microbials because customers are demanding more sustainable crop products that can help reduce the use of chemicals and the environmental impacts of those sprays.

Terry Stone, vice president of regulatory affairs and sustainability for Norway-based agtech company Agrinos, further explored the consumer impact on industry in his presentation at the conference. Consumers have a greater voice now in food production, a voice amplified by the dollars they spend as well as missives they post on social media. Consumers want to know where food comes from and how it was grown. These demands pressure growers and food companies to change their practices, Stone said. In order to be able to convey that they are good stewards of the land, food companies are increasingly adapting programs that promote sustainable practices within the corporation and across its supply chain.

Potential for Crop-Spraying Drones

Microbial treatments won’t spell the end of crop chemicals. But other technological advances have potential to change how growers apply pesticides and fungicides. While much of the discussion about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in agriculture focuses on monitoring and mapping applications, the vehicles can also spray crops. That’s an area of focus for Ken Giles, professor and vice chair of the department of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California-Davis. Giles tested how well UAVs … Next Page »

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