By John McLean

A confluence of investment, new technologies and interest from agricultural giants all point to a breakthrough moment for biologicals and biostimulants to become broadly accepted as agricultural inputs. Biologicals, typically defined as crop inputs that are derived from natural materials or contain living organisms, are nothing new. What is novel is the resurgence these naturally derived products are having over the past few years. According to a 2022 McKinsey survey, roughly 20 percent of American growers reported they were already using, or planned to use a biostimulant in their crop treatments. When incorporating biofertilizers and biocontrols, this figure increases to 30 percent. This suggests that biologicals have started to cross the chasm between early adopters and into the mainstream, and now make sense for the environment and the bottom line.

Big Players and Start-ups alike Pursue Biologicals

At the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco earlier this year, Corteva CEO Chuck Magro underlined his belief in biologicals and restated his prediction that by 2035 biologicals will comprise a quarter of the total crop protection market. This is not idle talk, as two years ago, Corteva started a multi-year collaboration with Ginkgo Bioworks to develop sustainable crop protection solutions. Just last month, Corteva acquired biocontrols companies Symborg and Stoller, to bring nutrient efficiency products to the market. The playbook of global industry players combining their premier R&D and distribution capabilities with the disruptive biotechnology of startups has become commonplace. In 2020, Syngenta Group announced the acquisition of Valagro, a manufacturer of biostimulants and biocontrols. In 2022, FMC completed the acquisition of BioPhero, which specializes in developing pheromones that prevent pests from reproducing. Most recently, Bayer and the agricultural biotech company Oerth Bio announced a new partnership to develop highly-targeted, biological crop protection products. Investors, startups and incumbents are all aligning behind biologicals, setting the stage for significant progress before the decade is out.

Biologicals bucking past hesitancy

This flurry of activity since the turn of the decade is no coincidence. Until recently, growers remained wary of the nascent biologicals market, which contained some products that could not back up their claims. Moreover, early biologicals were harder to transport and had significant shelf life issues, often leaving farmers frustrated by products that performed inconsistently in the field. This fresh wave of investment from trusted names and industry veterans brought more rigorous quality, novel naturally occurring chemistries and increased durability to products. With naturally derived ingredients, biologicals are also generally recognized as safe by government officials. Policymakers around the world, including those in the United States, are supporting these new products through streamlined regulatory reviews, in order to replace older, less effective synthetic chemistries — some of which date back to the 1960s.

Biostimulants show promise

One particular breed of biologicals to call out are biostimulants, which  help plant growth, vigor and yield, even when crops are under stress. Drought, high temperatures, disease and other stressors can all be weathered better by crops with the help of biostimulants. In fact, 23 percent of farmers across North America used a biostimulant of some kind, further proof that these products are going mainstream. For example, a majority of those farmers deployed nitrogen fixing microbes, like those of startup Pivot Bio, which replace synthetic fertilizer and reduce the harmful agricultural runoff guilty of causing massive algal blooms. 

A more recent development is the ability to move a plant into a “primed” condition via exposure to an “elicitor”.  Crops possess a natural ability to protect themselves from stress and disease, but this natural response is often too slow or weak. Priming elicitors developed by Zero Gravity Solutions allow plants to react more quickly and strongly, similar to a human vaccine. With over eight years of field trials across more than 30 vital crops, the company is at an inflection point, like the rest of the biologicals and biostimulants market. In addition to stimulating yield, elicitors can allow plants to naturally mitigate bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases in crops (including some diseases for which there are not effective chemical solutions).

Farmers are facing ever greater challenges from climate change, resistant pests and plant pathogens —all while needing to feed a growing population estimated to increase by two billion over the next three decades. It’s encouraging to see biologicals increasing in importance as farmers will need every bit of help they can get to feed and clothe the world in a more sustainable manner.