Row upon row of lima beans, peppers and other crops in the first stages of budding growth fill hundreds of small black pots inside a gleaming new West Sacramento greenhouse.
Part of a $12 million expansion by the pharmaceutical company Bayer at a 15-acre facility, these plants, and the research results they could yield, hold the promise of developing new varieties of biopesticides that environmentalists see as a hopeful alternative to the sometimes toxic chemicals now used by growers.
The plan in West Sacramento is to grow microbes in fermentation tanks and transfer them into the greenhouse environment for large-scale lab trials seeking to identify which microbes defend crops from certain pests.
At the larger of the two greenhouses, the crops grow under high-tech lighting and state-of-the-art greenhouse glass imported from Germany. Some of the crops in the 15,000-square-foot structure are destined for a 1-acre outdoor grow plot at the rear of the greenhouse building designed to replicate a farm environment.
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“One of the research fields we will work on is crop efficiency, where we look at microbes grown in concert with crops in a symbiotic relationship,” said Nate Royalty, director of invertebrate and pathogen biology at Bayer. “The result will be an increasing yield or stress tolerance for crops.”
UC Davis entomologist Frank Zalom sees the rise of biopesticides, which are derived from plants, bacteria, protozoans and minerals, as a positive development for farmers and for pesticide producers. Because of health risks, companies are having a harder time receiving government permission to produce conventional pesticides.
“The market for these things will increase because it’s easier to register them than conventional pesticides,” Zalom said. “It’s getting harder and harder to register conventional pesticides, and there are not many new categories of pesticides being developed at this time.”
Bayer’s research should be viewed with some caution, said Paul Towers, a policy specialist with the Pesticide Action Network, an international advocacy group that tracks pesticide use.
Some of the chemicals used in Bayer Crop Science’s products – like those in its biopesticide seed applications – have been linked to bee colony collapse.
“There is also a concern with the potential for doing more harm than good by mixing biopesticides with hazardous pesticides,” Towers said.
But the growing interest in biopesticides is a welcome development, he said.
“It’s a lot like people taking probiotics to bolster beneficial bacteria in their own bodies and promote a healthy immune system,” Towers said. "Bayer’s track record should be cause for concern, but supplementing with biologicals is a move in the right direction.”
Many organic farmers already treat their soil with biopesticides. Researchers are looking at how to make the microbes tightly targeted to certain crops and to make them degrade quickly in soil.
“The idea that we can try naturally occurring microbes in the ecosystem around crop roots for the benefit of farmers? That’s a relatively new concept,” Royalty said.
The company’s interest in biopesticides stems from a successful product it already produces called Votivo, which is a bioinsecticide applied to seeds. That product contains a bacterial strain that forms a barrier around roots, preventing insects from damaging crops.
The decision by the 153-year-old German agricultural and pharmaceutical giant to build its biopesticide research headquarters in the Sacramento Valley speaks to the region’s agricultural and research clout, especially with UC Davis laboratories operating nearby.
Bayer went on an acquisition spree of smaller agricultural companies that included a 2012 purchase of the Davis-based company AgraQuest for $425 million. AgraQuest had already been working on biopesticides, and some of its staff were absorbed into Bayer.
Reduction in pesticide use would also provide a major health benefit for the Central Valley. In 2014, a state report counted 30 schools in Sacramento County and 18 in Yolo County that operate within a quarter mile of where millions of pounds of pesticides are applied.
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz