Biologicals: using nature to protect crops – and the microbiome for plants and soil

Posted on November 22, 2019

Biologicals: using nature to protect crops – and the microbiome for plants and soil

There’s a revolution brewing: one that will see the $240 billion crop protection and fertilizer market dramatically transformed in the next thirty years by biologicals – highly effective, natural crop protection and enhancement products that are taking agriculture by storm.

Biologicals are biopesticides, biofertilizers, and biostimulants. What makes them ‘bio’ is that they are derived from natural materials like animals, plants, bacteria and minerals. Because they are naturally occurring, they support crop resilience in a much more sustainable way than chemicals. (One of the greatest benefits of biologicals is their potential to improve the health and diversity of the microbiome – and lay the foundation for other innovations that can improve and protect it further.)

Nature has tremendous power to nurture plants. So why not use it to its full advantage? Biologicals, leveraging the power of nature, have the potential to not just compete with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but to replace them altogether within 30 years.1,2 This exciting global shift from chemicals to biologicals, the use of modern fields studies in biology that is commonly referred to as omics, and precision agriculture is what is referred to as the new green revolution.

What is the microbiome, exactly?

The microbiome is what makes our plants and soil healthy. It is made up of bacteria and fungi that live in association with plants and provide natural services including protection against pests and diseases.3 For example, a single teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than all the people on Earth.4 Studies of the microbiome have given scientists a more detailed understanding of how these billions of microbes contribute to the healthy, organic soil that is valued by every farmer.

However, decades of adverse agricultural practices and chemical pesticide use have depleted the beneficial organisms from our soil; through the industrialization and intensification of agriculture, soils have disintegrated globally.5

But there is good news, that these practices are beginning to shift as farmers, scientists and societies have realized the negative impact of them.  As a result, adoption of biologicals is booming. Today, biological agents are more effective and more affordable than ever.6 As they increasingly replace chemical products, the health of the microbiome will improve, creating a foundation for even more natural product innovations.

The widespread use of biologicals instead of chemical products has huge potential to change farming practices for the better, leading to the resurgence in the health and diversity of the microbiome in agricultural areas.

How do biologicals work?

Biologicals can be used in all the ways that a traditional chemical (e.g., pesticide, fertilizer, stimulants) can be used. This includes usage through conventional spraying on crop fields, foliar application, soil application and seed treatment. The unique advantage of biologicals is that it can be applied safely through more natural methods such as bee vectoring (read more on this further down in the post).

The benefits of biologicals are huge

  • For farmers, they help with integrated pest management (IPM) and protect beneficial organisms – including pollinators.7 They’re a powerful resistance management tool, offer labor and harvest flexibility and have very low toxicity. Plus, they’re a vital part of rebuilding a healthy microbiome.
  • For the agriculture industry, biological innovations can be added to enhance and rejuvenate a chemical portfolio that could otherwise become obsolete over time, and they represent a great way to open additional markets such as organic farming.
  • For investors, the potential of biologicals is tremendous. Industry leaders see a future in which we could cut half of chemical fertilizers and 90% of chemical insecticides and fungicides.8
  • For consumers, they ensure food is grown safely and sustainably, with a smaller ecological footprint.
  • For our environment, healthier soil can store more carbon to reduce the effects of climate change.9

Changing the future of farming

Biologicals are beginning to revolutionize agriculture by putting nature to work to protect and fertilize crops and alleviate stresses like heat, water, and salinity during climate change. This increasing adoption of biologicals is an important step toward reinvigorating the microbiome.

A healthy microbiome could also mean a move away from classical biocontrol methods where one pest is controlled with one biopesticide. Instead, we will move to a system that uses resident microbial communities to control multiple pests.10,11 Advances in precision agriculture, digital farming, and integrated system approaches will drive their effectiveness even further to enhance crop resilience and pest control.

The industry is abuzz with innovative application technologies

At Bee Vectoring Technologies (BVT), we enable targeted delivery of biologicals via bee vectoring and using commercially reared bees. Instead of wasting up to 98% by spraying, which is the current method of applying chemicals to crops, bees carry the product directly to the crop’s blooms, providing full treatment at a fraction of the cost and eliminating the waste and run-off associated with spraying chemicals. BVT’s innovative natural precision agriculture system offers continuous application throughout the bloom period, with minimal water and without the use of fossil fuels, which improves crop yield – all without harming bees.

A promising outlook

Biologicals protect biodiversity, preserve the microbiome and promise to revolutionize agriculture. They will be in high demand due to their ability to avoid wasteful spraying practices, to act as effective fertilizers, and as stress-alleviation agents. They’ll do it all without harming the microbiome, creating synergies that will enable results far beyond anything offered by today’s conventional crop protection and fertilizer market.

[1] Serazetdinova L. The future of crop protection. Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Network, nEUROSTRESSPEP. 2019.

[2] Novozymes. The BioAg alliance readies new microbial solution to improve corn harvests. Corporate News; 2016.

[3] Wageningen University and Research. Modifying the plant microbiome to make plants more resistant to pests and diseases. Project; 2017.

[4] Innovature, Our Planet. Microbes that nourish plants naturally. Innovate Nourishing Tomorrow; 2019.

[5] United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Land degradation neutrality: Resilience at local, national and regional levels. Bonn: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; 2015.

[6] Maughan S, Furlong K. Crop protection: Biologicals vs chemicals? AgFunder Network Partners; 2017.

[7] Food and Agriculture Organization. Integrated pest management (IPM) is an ecosystem approach to crop production and protection that emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.; 2019.

[8] Hammerich T. Farming microbes. Future of Agriculture; 2018.

[9] Burwood-Taylor L. Senate passes farm bill with incentives for farmers to build soil health, sequester carbon. 2018. AgfunderNews.

[10] Massart S, et al. Biological control in the microbiome era: Challenges and opportunities. 2015. Biological Control. 2015;89:98–108. //10.1016/j.biocontrol.2015.06.003.

[11] Ortiz-Cañavate B. K, et al. Fungicides at environmentally relevant concentrations can promote the proliferation of toxic bloom-forming cyanobacteria by inhibiting natural fungal parasite epidemics. Chemosphere. 2019 Aug;229:18–21.