Startup Profile: Pest Busting Ag Entrepreneur Offers Farmers a Natural Solution
July 25, 2011 | Kevin Coss
Agriculture entrepreneur Pam Marrone, the CEO and Founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, says that biopesticides are the best-kept secret in agriculture. And she believes her company, which develops environmentally responsible natural products for plant, weed and pest disease management will play a large role in sustainably supporting the earth’s growing population.
“You can’t continue to feed people and trash the earth at the same time,” she says.
Marrone, who won the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Growing Green” Business Leader award earlier this year, also likes to remind skeptics of biopesticides that they have a 63-year history of safe use as an organic and biodegradable form of treatment.
Her company’s pesticides, herbicides and algaecides are all derived from naturally occurring substances such as microbes, bacteria and plant extracts.
The company’s products include: GreenMatch, an herbicide approved for use by organic growers that uses a citrus oil extract to kill weeds; Zequanox, a type of bacteria that selectively kills invasive mussel species without damaging other aquatic organisms; and Regalia, a biofungicide that triggers a plant’s natural defense systems to protect against fungal and bacterial pathogens.
Though Marrone Bio Innovations has only been around for a few years, Marrone says that its biopesticides have been able to improve on a significant problem posed by chemical pesticides: resistance. She says that over time insects develop a tolerance to certain conventional treatments, making them less effective in protecting crops. Marrone says that it’s “very rare” that pests build up a resistance to Marrone Bio Innovation’s products.
Regalia, the company’s flagship product, obtained full EPA approval in 2010 and is NOP (National Organic Program) compliant and OMRI listed meaning that it can be used in certified organic production according to USDA NOP rules. Sales of the product have been brisk. “Last year was the first year of Regalia sales, and we sold in the millions,” says Marrone.
In terms of customer targeting, the company primarily focuses on selling and marketing its Regalia and GreenMatch products to high-value fruit, nut and vegetable growers. Marrone believes cultivators of row crops like corn, cotton and soybeans will catch on soon, and predicts Marrone Bio Innovation’s revenue will double from 2010 to 2011.
Getting growers to use biopesticides
Marrone Bio Innovations has also been working hard to get chemical-dependent growers to integrate biopesticides into their pest management programs. To help growers make the transition to biopesticides the company has funded studies that show that using Regalia in combination with a chemical-based treatment program can increase a grower’s yields. “We can show you can get 10 bushels per acre more with Regalia than the chemical-only program,” says Marrone.
The company is currently running trials in the Midwest and Southeast in order to demonstrate Regalia’s effectiveness to prospective buyers. The company uses the data from these trials to convince conventional growers to adopt biopesticides by showing them evidence of the product’s ability to increase yield when integrated into conventional programs.
“Ultimately, it would be great to have enough biopesticides that the farmers could be using a mix of only biopesticides or rotating from one biopesticide to another,” Marrone said. “But there aren’t enough products on the market yet to do that.” She added that getting all of the products out there to be biopesticides is an unrealistic goal, but Marrone Bio Innovations hopes to increase market share from around 4 percent to 25 percent over the next 10 years.
Marrone says that farmers never use one product alone, deciding to either mix products or alternate them, in order to prevent insects from building up resistance. Integrating products like Regalia would lower the total amount of harmful chemicals being used, she says.
According to Marrone, most farmers do not know about the environmental benefits that accrue from using biopesticides, nor are they aware of the positive impact that biopesticides can have on crop yields. Thus, she says that it will be awhile before biopesticide use is widespread. “A lot of small companies don’t have the clout to get the message out,” Marrone says. “We’re trying, but we’re still small. We don’t have the funds and the money to do the P.R. big companies can do.”
So even though the biopesticide market is growing at rate of 10 percent per year, the company’s products still remain largely under the radar. Marrone believes this will change in the near future, as legislation begins to tighten the rules on the types and amounts of chemicals that growers can use. Marrone writes that the rise in demand for biopesticides is not only coming from pesticide users, but is also being driven by a general public that is concerned with the potential air pollution, bird toxicity, surface and groundwater contamination perceived to be related to the use of conventional chemical pesticides. Currently, more new biopesticides than conventional chemical pesticides are being developed and introduced, which suggests the market will continue to grow, she says.
Marrone Bio Innovations has a number of new bio-based products on the horizon, including new insecticides, an algaecide and a fungicide. But it may take the company awhile to get the products to market as obtaining EPA approval for a new active ingredient is a lengthy endeavor. While the process is meant to take about 18 months, companies have recently met with 21 to 36 months waits as a result of a backlog at the EPA. “It’s an issue our industry is actively engaged in right now, to improve those timelines with the agency,” Marrone says. In the years to come, she hopes to make a lasting impact in the field of sustainable agriculture by bringing safe, effective and environmentally friendly products to fill unmet needs in the market and replace the more toxic pesticides that are currently being used.