If you’re wondering whether the world’s crop science companies are listening to consumer demand for sustainable farming, look no further than West Sacramento where Bayer CropScience is investing $80 million toward developing products to naturally combat pests and diseases.
Company executives, visiting from their home base in Research Triangle Park, N.C., cut the ceremonial red ribbon Wednesday at the new global headquarters for their Biologics unit on 10 acres of land about five minutes from Ikea and Home Depot. The headquarters spans 100,000 square feet and houses research equipment that is as sophisticated and costly as that found in any medical lab. The campus includes a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse and also will be home to a 30,000-square-foot building for vegetable seed research. Company leaders say they will add a 35,000-square-foot pilot plant to test whether products are scalable and have set aside 5 acres for a test field and another greenhouse.
Basically, scientists in the Biologics division get paid to play with dirt, but as senior microbiologist Bjorn Traag explained, dirt is a lot more complicated than people think. There could be about 100 million to 1 billion bacteria per gram of soil, he said, and those bacteria and the compounds they produce hold secrets to protecting plants. Already, Bayer CropScience markets products such as Serenade and Sonata, developed from microbes to combat fungus.
“Bacteria don’t live in solitude,” Traag said. “They produce a ton of chemicals which they use as signals to communicate with each other, but more importantly they also use those chemicals to communicate with plants and plant roots. The relationship that the bacteria form with the plant helps promote plant health as well as promote or help the plants in the defense against plant pathogenics, fungi, insects and other bacteria.”
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Once the Biologics researchers find a bacterial strain with beneficial properties, they feed it carbohydrates. It produces what looks like a beef broth, which they call “natural product chemistry.” Then they apply that broth to the plant and observe whether it does things like fight off diseases or kill insects.
On a global basis, biological pest and disease control is the fastest growing segment in crop protection, said Ashish Malik, vice president of global marketing for Bayer CropScience’s Biologics unit.
“Today, if you look at different market studies, they say it’s about 1.5 billion euros, and that’s about $1.8 billion,” he said, “but the projections are that it will keep growing at 10 to 15 percent a year.”
The Biologics division has a library of about 100,000 microbes that the team researches to see how good they are at helping plants fight off certain diseases or pests, Malik said. They pick the ones that best suit the needs of farmers and the market. Before it gets even to the development phase, the microbes, their broth and the research results will be subjected to a battery of tests.
What is the underlying chemistry that produces the desired effect? Can that chemistry be developed at a price the grower can afford? Will it still perfom well if exposed to intense sunlight or moisture? Are the scientists using appropriate test methods to ensure the product can be made consistently each time?
Researchers in West Sacramento say the fun of their jobs is in not knowing what new challenge they will meet each day. Senior scientist Colleen Taylor and her team take small batches of potential biopesticides and work on fermentation processes that will increase volume while maintaining potency.
“Just like different people require different nutrients to keep them going,” Taylor said. “That’s exactly the same way as our microbes work. Some of them will only produce and grow really, really well when you use proteins derived from animals, and others prefer proteins derived from vegetable sources. That’s part of what we do here. What is it that they need?”
Taylor said they are always thinking two steps down the road because increasing the volume creates new challenges. The Biologics researchers also must consider shelf life, typical ambient temperatures in farm sheds, how their product will react with others being used, and even how farmers will apply it.
“When we bring the product to a farmer, a farmer who’s been using chemicals, fertilizers and so forth for decades, we want to fit these products into the practices that they’re used to,” Malik said. “So if we were to tell them, here’s a great biological product, but you have to change your farming processes, they’re not going to want that, so what we ultimately try to do is develop a product based on the microbe that can be used the way the farmer uses it.”