Five years ago, Trevor Thiessen spent his days making phone calls to major ag chemical companies trying to get his foot in the door. He just wanted to land a meeting where he could explain his company’s products.
"No one was interested in us," notes the president of the BioAg division for Novozymes, a biological solutions company that provides enzymes, microorganism and biopharmaceutical ingredients.
Today, Thiessen doesn’t have to pick up the phone to call anyone. His phone is ringing off the hook; companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience are on the other end.
"Now the ag chemical companies are looking for alternative solutions they can work into their product portfolios," says Thiessen. "Consumers are demanding less chemical use. These companies want to be able to offer biological products alongside their chemical products."
Pest control in agriculture has developed by leaps and bounds in the past century. After 60 years of chemical control, farming is now entering an era of ecological control, driven in part by consumer demand and in part by resistance issues now found in farmer fields.
Thiessen acknowledges that some farmers are skeptical about biologicals. In years past, biologicals worked only intermittently and were expensive. The science, however, has come a long way, he notes. The companies around today have rigorous scientific testing and strong basis for development, whereas 10 years ago, this wasn’t the case.
"Where we are today with biological products, is about the same as where seed genetics were in early 1980s, Thiessen says. Development of biological products, which have living organisms, presents various challenges. One challenge is to create a product that acts consistently across a wide range of soil conditions and environments. Another is to be able to multiply and package strains in a way that they survive and perform well in the field without being cost prohibitive. Yet another is to develop strains that are compatible with chemical compounds that growers already use.
Despite the challenges, these and other companies see potential for biologicals, including their use in crop rotations to help delay the onset of resistance to certain chemicals and to improve overall plant health and vigor.
Growing a natural market.
The potential is seen in sheer growth of biological product sales. Novozymes BioAg has sales in over 40 countries; five years ago they were only in a few countries. Much of this growth comes from partnerships with ag chemical companies that have worldwide reach.
For example, Novozymes and Syngenta announced a global agreement earlier this year under which Syngenta will work with Novozymes to commercialize JumpStart technology, a seed-applied biological that increases phosphate solubilization in the soil. JumpStart used on oilseed, cereal, and legume crops has been shown to improve the utilization of soil and fertilizer phosphate, giving average yield increases of 5–9%, according to Novozymes research.
The two companies jointly develop the market for JumpStart in combination with Syngenta’s Seed Care portfolio on arable crops, including cereals and corn. The agreement extends the geographical potential of JumpStart, currently sold mainly in North America, to the rest of the world.
"We want to work with chemical companies because we know there are problems out there not being addressed, and we are excited to take our products to the big crop companies," says Chuck Broughton, director of marketing and sales, Novozymes North America.
Why would a major ag chemical company want to work with Novozymes on a product? "They want to design specific programs for the grower," Broughton notes. "They don’t want to just sell gallons of product. In exchange, growers want to deal with one company that can bring them solutions. That is a value proposition for both sides."
A biological for every need.
Novozymes, which developed its BioAg division in 2007 after it acquired the microbials company Philom Bios, now offers a biological product for nearly every need on the farm – from bioinsecticides, biofungicides, biofertility products and a new category – bioyield enhancers. Also in the pipeline: a potential biologic herbicide that would be a spray pre-emergent product, notes Curtis Granger, Biocontrol Market Development Lead.
The bottom line is that there is an opportunity today to use a wide range of biologic products along with chemicals on the farm, Thiessen says.
"If we can eliminate the last two sprays of a chemical fungicide with a biologic, most consumers will be happy about that and so will farmers," he adds.