For years, enhanced growth like Landis reports was the common claim made for biologicals. However, public and private researchers often failed to substantiate the claims, resulting in suggestions that such products were “snake oil.” In recent years, new-generation biologicals have proven themselves as yield enhancers and biopesticides and sometimes both. In particular, they’ve been successful when combined with synthetic chemicals, such as nematode control in the seed treatment package Poncho/Votivo.

Proof of these successes has been the rapid and aggressive acquisitions of leading biological firms by major agricultural chemical companies, like the recent acquisitions of AgraQuest (biopesticide and bioyield enhancers) by Bayer CropScience, Becker Underwood (inoculants) by BASF Crop Protection and Pasteuria Bioscience (nematode control) and Devgen (biological disease inhibitor technology) by Syngenta Crop Protection. Monsanto recently announced a $29-million investment in a biological pesticide venture, and multiple other partnerships among independents and the majors are in play.

The shift in thinking didn’t come easily, suggests Pam Marrone, who founded AgraQuest in 1995 and more recently Marrone Bio Innovations. She recalls the difficulty of introducing biologicals in the 1990s. “When we started, growers didn’t want to talk to us about biologicals, and distributors weren’t interested. When public researchers tested them, they did it wrong, often stand-alone against the best cocktail of chemistries, and then said that they didn’t work.”

There are a number of factors that can inhibit biologicals, adds Matt Kowalski, president, Natural Industries, maker of biological fungicides for high-value crop segments. “We found that researchers were testing our Streptomycesproduct Actinovate AG with chlorinated water. As little as 1 ppm can kill everything. Some organisms are sensitive to other factors such as pH or temperature extremes. Living products can be affected by the environment.”

Kowalski suggests that initial grower acceptance of biologicals also was limited by a lack of knowledge about how they work, as well as some unrealistic expectations. “Some companies oversold their products,” he says. “Biologicals are not a cure-all in every situation.”