Synthetics, Biologicals, Systems Agronomy and Weak Link Problems
Highlighting dynamics that need to be resolved in the world of biologicals
On June 20th and 21st in Salinas, California, Western Growers and New Zealand-based agrifood tech consultancy, Wharf42 held their 2023 Biological Summit.
I had a conflict that didn’t allow me to attend, but it drummed up a significant amount of conversation among those interested in the biological space.
Walt Duflock shared his thoughts and insights, The Mixing Bowl Hub launched their first ever Biological Landscape, S2G Ventures shared their takeaways and Jennifer Marston of AgFunder wrote a great article sharing her learnings.
I have long loved the fit for biologicals in crop production, and the discussion got me thinking more about a few areas of biologicals.
That led me to dig into three areas regarding their present and future utility:
Synthetic chemistry is king
Systems agronomy and biologicals
Weak link problems and biological progression
*Note: I’ll use the term biologicals, which can mean a host of things, but I am alluding to it, unless otherwise stated, as a living organism used for pest control or biostimulatory effects on plants. At the end of this article is an image illustrating the various categories of biofertilizer, biostimulants and biopesticides.
Synthetic chemistry and fertilizers will continue to be used in crop protection and nutrition for decades. Synthetic inputs have advantages such as high efficacy, ease of formulation, and regulation, making them the current standard. In contrast, biologicals face challenges related to environmental influences, formulation complexities, and limited market understanding, resulting in less consistent performance. Implementing and integrating biological products effectively require systems approaches for improved outcomes.
Systems agronomy offers an opportunity to enhance plant health and integrated pest management by combining biologicals with synthetics and incorporating decision-informing systems. This holistic approach considers the interconnectedness of the entire farming system and optimizes performance and resilience. Applying biologicals within this approach can address challenges with synthetic or cultural tools alone, leading to better outcomes for farmers. Leveraging digital systems and partnerships with technology companies can further enhance the efficacy and utilization of biologicals, unlocking their full potential for sustainable and high-performing agricultural systems.
Challenges with biological effectiveness are not a venture capital funding issue (investing in poor technology), but rather a lack of regulation and low entry barriers that lead to a proliferation of companies with subpar technology and products. Biologicals, particularly biostimulants and biofertilizers, can be considered weak link problems, where the overall outcome depends on the performance of the weakest elements. To improve outcomes and eliminate poor performers, it is necessary to increase barriers to entry and requirements for selling products. The current voluntary mechanisms and certifications in place are a step in the right direction but lack the oversight of traditional regulatory agencies. Given the complexity of the biologicals industry and the need for economic response, more education, awareness, and vetting processes are required for the industry to thrive.
Biologicals have potential due to ESG trends, regulatory challenges in synthetics, and untapped stress management. However, the industry lacks necessary regulation, training, and understanding. Confidence will grow, but not replace synthetics or ignore cultural practices. Stakeholders must invest and ask targeted questions about the products, going beyond yield data. Deeper assessments inform agronomists and raise expectations for manufacturers. This complements regulatory needs and industry improvement.
1. Synthetic chemistry is king
Barring unforeseen regulatory changes, synthetic chemistry and fertilizers will be used in crop protection and crop nutrition for decades to come.
Synthetic pesticides, at least on average, are still well in the realm of the Overton Window.
The Overton Window is an approach for looking at ideas, concepts, or policies on a spectrum of acceptability. The Overton Window continuously moves around concepts and how popular or unacceptable they might be in society. It is a never-ending ebb and flow of ideas moving in and out of popularity.
It is usually applied to government policy and cultural issues, but I think it can be used surrounding concepts that are accepted in industries, including agriculture:
Not only are synthetic inputs within the common and sensible range of the Overton Window, but they are also necessary to deliver unparalleled outcomes and economic value to farmers.
Last year I compared synthetic crop protection to biological growth using a 12% CAGR for biologicals and 3% for synthetics and extended it out for decades, leading to biologicals surpassing synthetics by the early 2040s.
As I pointed out then, there are flaws with this logic— not all biologicals are crop protection; they will grow at different rates in different areas, the growth rates will change the further out we get, and much more.
However, it’s a helpful thought experiment to not only show the future potential of biologicals but also reinforce that even though biologicals have lots of potential, they WILL NOT get to the equivalency of synthetics for over two decades, let alone replace them in their entirety: