Biological products in agriculture

By Shashi Sharma, Independent Consultant – Global Food Security, Biosecurity and Planetary Health

Shashi Sharma, Independent Consultant – Global Food Security, Biosecurity and Planetary Health, highlights the promises an

Shashi Sharma, Independent Consultant – Global Food Security, Biosecurity and Planetary Health, highlights the promises and challenges of biological products in agriculture.
During the past 10,000 years, humans have selected about 10 species of animals and 20 species of plants that provide about 90% of our food. This handful of plant and animal resources has provided us with global game changers but, as concerns for global food security grow alongside an expanding global population, biological products in agriculture provide an excellent opportunity for enhancing productivity while minimizing ecological footprint and increasing our resilience to climate change. Biologicals are broadly categorized as biostimulants and biopesticides, which are applied to plants, seeds and the rhizosphere.
While definitions of different categories of biologicals are still evolving, the markets for biologicals as agricultural inputs are growing fast. Environmental concerns posed by synthetic chemical products, growth of the organic food industry, and rising demands worldwide for foods free of chemical residues are all driving the market growth of biologicals in the agriculture sector. Double digit growth is projected across North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific. Various market studies indicate that the biostimulants market will account for $2.6 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $ 4.9 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 11.24%. The biopesticides market is $3.0 billion and projected to reach $ 6.4 billion by 2023, at a CAGR of 15.99%.
Compared with synthetic chemicals, biologicals have much shorter developmental timelines including registration and are less expensive to produce. Recognising the market opportunity, the private sector has invested resources to identify the front runner products. About 500 companies are already in the business of biologicals and there has been a surge in applied research and development activities. On the other hand, governments are carefully developing policies and regulations to facilitate the use of biologicals. These consider biological products’ associations with safer work environments, reduced risk of pest resistance development, no chemical residue issues and enhanced productivity with no apparent damage to the environment.
However, there are some challenges to the development, large scale production and wide adoption of biologicals. For example:
  • There is insufficient information on the scientific basis underpinning their complex modes and mechanisms of action.
  • A wide range of processes and technologies are applied to produce them from a diversity of sources, which may influence their efficacy.
  • Biologicals in some environments may be slow to show results as they can be influenced by various factors and not all environments are conducive, leading to variable results and impacting on the confidence of the users.
  • International transportation of some biologicals may require biosecurity clearances in some nations.
This is a challenging and exciting time in global agriculture. Worldwide use of biologicals is expected to contribute immensely to enhancing the sustainability of the production systems and the planet. Biopesticides’ market share, which currently accounts for about 10% of the crop protection market, is likely to catch up with chemical pesticides share in about 20-30 years if the projected market growth continues. Furthermore, it is expected that advances in science and the application of next generation biotechnologies, omics and new technologies including nanoscience will contribute to elucidating the modes and mechanisms of action of biologicals helping to further expand their use and market share.
We have a huge untapped microbial resource; it is estimated that at least half of the living biomass on the planet is microbial and probably less than 0.1% has been characterized. Information on full genomes of microbes in the soil microbiome would enable discovery of agriculturally important novel biologicals. Long-term vision, world class innovation, entrepreneurship, enhanced public and private funding support and global partnerships across government, industry and academia are needed to explore the vast microbial diversity and identify potential game changers for sustainably increasing crop productivity and controlling the plant pests and diseases. Fortunately, we are living in the era of big data, robotic autonomous systems, analytics, bioinformatics, satellites, internet of things, artificial intelligence, omics technologies, whole genome sequencing and nanotechnology – all the key enablers required for successful development, production and wide adoption of biologicals in sustainable agriculture.
You can hear Shashi Sharma discuss the need and challenges of biological products in agriculture at the inaugural Biopesticide Summit in Swansea, UK, on 2–3 July.
Shashi Sharma is an Independent Consultant for the global food security, biosecurity and planetary health sector. He can be contacted at 70 Waterford Avenue, Waterford, WA 6152, Australia.