The end of ‘spray and pray’

‘Biologicals’, products based on the microbiome of a plant, are faster and cheaper to produce than pesticides. NewLeaf Symbiotics chief executive Tom Laurita says that this fast-moving area offers ample opportunity, but still has high risks.

When we founded our agricultural biologicals company NewLeaf Symbiotics, some people told us that we were dreamers.

Five years later, we are witnessing the early stages of a revolution as significant as the Green Revolution a generation ago. Biologicals will form the basis for innovative and sustainable agricultural solutions while answering the need for higher yields. They will compliment, and in some cases could even replace, synthetic chemicals like pesticides.

But biologicals are still so new, most people outside the agricultural input or advanced farming world don’t fully understand what they are or what they are capable of.

Biologicals are products that are developed from studying the microbiome, which is the entirety of all the micro-organisms or microbes in a given environment, and the genetic information in these microbes. The number of microbial cells that live in the human microbiome may be ten times greater than the number of actual human cells in our bodies.

It’s a similar situation for plants. Soil and leaves host hundreds of billions of microbes. “Biologicals” in agriculture are things like natural plant-colonising or soil-dwelling microbes – mainly bacteria or fungi.

Biologicals can be the microbes themselves, biochemicals produced by microbes, plant extracts, or beneficial insects. One example already being used in fields is VOTiVO, made with a bacterium that colonises the roots of plants to protect them from pathogens.

A slide of PPFMs from NewLeaf Symbiotics' lab.
A slide of PPFMs from NewLeaf Symbiotics’ lab.

Biologicals could also be the answer to consumer concerns about food safety. People do not want synthetic chemicals in their food, and consumer demand for sustainable agricultural inputs is driving interest in biologicals.

This year we are introducing products based on a type of bacteria called pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs (PPFMs). These bacteria help plants protect themselves from fungal infections and they create compounds that benefit plants. They are naturally present on the fruit and vegetables available in supermarkets – we’ve checked. Every time you eat a salad you consume millions of PPFMs. These microbes have been always been part of the human diet.

Not only are biologicals popular with consumers and thought to be less harmful to the environment (they’re not genetically modified organisms or synthetic chemicals like pesticides), they are also more affordable to develop and faster to bring to market.

NewLeaf Symbiotics has spent several hundred thousand dollars to sequence and analyse the genomes of over 1,000 PPFM strains in our collection. A decade ago this would have cost us millions.

This affordability is a huge bonus for Big Ag; until recently the development of new agricultural inputs included lots of trial and error or “spray and pray”.

Biologicals have now moved front and centre for all the major players in world agriculture. Multinationals like Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DuPont are all staking out territory in the space.

But there is also uncertainty about the ultimate regulation of biologicals. The original registration regime in agriculture was created for chemicals, and while the Environmental Protection Agency encourages the use of biologicals, regulators are hard-pressed to keep up with their rapid adoption.

The soil and plant microbiome is one of the most complex systems on earth, and most of it is yet to be isolated and characterised. Researchers and companies are rushing to create and test technologies that mine this rich source of products. We are early in the game.

That means lots of opportunity and lots of risk.

But companies are clamouring to identify the next big technology, and several large exits have stoked investor appetite.  Big Ag is spending big money on biologicals. Five years after we started, no one tells us we’re dreaming any more.

Tom Laurita is the chief executive officer and founder of NewLeaf Symbiotics. He has experience growing companies in different industries and was chief of Monsanto’s operations in the USSR for two years.