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Biologicals: Crop Protection that's Greener than Your Crop

Biologicals: Crop Protection that's Greener than Your Crop

21 December 2011

ANALYSIS - It's not often you hear about a truly new approach to protecting your crop that's also sustainable and safe to the environment, but use of a biological does just that - it protects your seed or plant from fungi, insects or nematodes while being green in every sense of the word, writes Sarah Mikesell, TheCropSite senior editor.

What is a biological product?

A biological can be defined as a living organism or a non-living organism from a natural plant extract that provides protection to a seed or plant from pests. Biologicals also have the ability to promote plant growth or plant health.

"Even in the absence of pests, use of a living or natural product can induce or cause a plant to be healthier, and they do that by turning on a gene or protein in the plant that can trigger a growth response," said Jennifer Riggs, Bayer CropScience Product Development. "Biologicals offer a different avenue that is a more natural approach, by utilizing living organisms or products that have come from living organisms."

What role do biologicals play in crop protection?

When thinking about biological products, most people likely turn to organic production. Biologicals do have a fit in the organic horticultural and agricultural markets, with many living biologicals certified as organic pesticides or organic growth promoting products.

"Looking at biologicals for non-organic broad-acre crops, they are important for two reasons," Dr. Riggs said. "First, biologicals can work as a means to complement traditional pesticides by offering a way to guard against a pest that traditional pesticides can't protect against."

Second, biologicals can extend the window of efficacy. If a traditional product remains active and efficacious for 21 days before the environment begins breaking it down, a biological can multiply and extend the window of efficacy against a pest by providing a longer period of protection and/or growth promotion, resulting in a healthier plant.

"A biological can take you from organic to supplementing traditional pesticides by offering protection that they can't, to extending the protection time of seeds and plants," Dr. Riggs said. "These approaches make biologicals part of an integrated management program because you start with one product and end with something different which can also assist with your resistance management program."

The horticulture market is currently looking at using a biological product at the last application to reduce their minimum residues levels and get to market faster. For example, a traditional pesticide may require 21 days from the last spray before the product can be sold, but with a biological it can sell in 7 days.

Why use a biological?

For years, scientists and farmers have recognized that microorganisms are an essential part of healthy soils. Native soil microorganisms do a good job in situations where there's normal crop production. Some native soil microbes can benefit plant growth, however, some have no effect and some have a detrimental effect.

The biological industry aims to select some of those beneficial native soil microorganisms and reintroduce them to increase their population and activity on the plant.

VOTiVO - Complements traditional insecticide

VOTiVO, a Bayer biological seed treatment, is an example of bringing a biological to the market to complement an extremely successful traditional seed treatment in order to control a different pest.

Poncho®/VOTiVO® is a seed treatment that is registered for corn, soybeans, cotton and sorghum and will be launched in the sugar beet market in 2012. It combines a traditional insecticide, Poncho, with VOTiVO, a biological, to promote protection from soil-borne nematodes against the plant's root system.

"Most nematodes damage the roots in the first 60 days following planting. After that the root system has gotten large enough to withstand nematode damage and as the soil environment warms up nematodes become less active," Dr. Riggs said. "Poncho/VOTiVO protects the root system during those critical first 60 days. We've taken two products - one new biological and one established insecticide and have actually expanded the value of the established product to include additional below-ground pests."

How does the biological in Poncho/VOTiVO work?

New research at Auburn University has concentrated on understanding how the bacterial strain in VOTiVO colonizes (or grows on) roots. The bacteria are applied to the seed in a dormant state. As a seed germinates, it releases exudates that provide food for the bacteria. In response, the bacteria become active and start to multiply. The bacteria grow along the root, so they are in position to reduce damage to nematodes that attack the root.

"Our results to-date show that VOTiVO colonizes on roots for at least 12 weeks after planting which is the longest time that we've tested against," said Joe Kloepper, plant pathologist at Auburn University.

The first 12 weeks are seen as a critical growth time for plants, and protection during this time means you've protected against nematode damage that would relate to yield loss.

"This is what's so exciting about this new era - this product links good, quality microbiology with traditional chemistry," Dr. Kloepper said. "We have a product that is providing a benefit that the chemical alone cannot. Now we can create a seed treatment package that can help us reach goals that have not been attainable before, like season-long protection from nematodes through the economic threshold."

Kloepper said his research has also examined colonization patterns.

"Our results showed VOTiVO can actually get inside the roots. Typically only a very small percentage of microbes get inside the root," he said. "Now that we know VOTiVO is one of those few, we also know that there is more potential for activating plant defenses against nematodes."

Science and research have shown that bacteria can enter a root through the growing root tip. And more commonly, when a root hair is growing out from the main root, there's a natural opening created that organisms can enter that is created by this branch root.

"Once inside the plant, the bacteria will be taken up into the plant and its natural defenses will be activated," Dr. Kloepper said. "This inside-outside approach to colonization is an important mechanism for a plant to more easily protect against nematodes."

Increasing global interest

With the anti-biotechnology stance in Europe, it should come as no surprise that the use of biologicals is gaining momentum, especially in EU countries. Currently North America is the number one user of biological products, but the biological initiative is becoming extremely important especially when it comes to vegetables, horticultural products and greenhouse-grown products that go straight to the consumer.

"There's a really big push for biologicals right now because of the inherent safety of the products," Dr. Riggs said. "In North America, use is expanding which is building a platform for the value that biologicals can bring. When you see products being successful, that always opens the door to more products coming into the marketplace."

Dr. Kloepper agrees, noting that he is part of a very active international PGPRs (plant growth promoting rhizobacteria) community. He said there is also strong interest in PGPRs in the developing world, and China has hosted a series of international meetings on the topic. Kloepper expects to see strong growth in China's research and development of biologicals.

"Since Bayer CropScience is the first multi-national agricultural chemical company to market a microbial product as a seed treatment, there is strong international interest in the VOTiVO technology," he said. "Everyone's watching."

Sarah Mikesell, Senior Editor

Sarah Mikesell, Senior Editor

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