Aug 21, 2023
Biological event kicks off global conversation

The Salinas Biological Summit owes its inspiration, in part, to sweeping changes proposed in California’s initiative to significantly reduce pesticides and promote sustainable pest management practices.

That plan, “Accelerating Sustainable Pest Management: A Roadmap for California,” calls for elimination of “priority pesticides” and adoption of sustainable pest management practices throughout the state by 2050.

The Salinas Biological Summit features a trade show with biological product companies, including Ac-Planta, a Tokyo-based company. Photos courtesy of Salinas Biological Summit.

The “2050 Roadmap” featured prominently during the inaugural summit in Salinas, California, June 20-21. Dennis Donohue, director of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas, however, said exporters will have to consider similar plans much sooner.

For example, Susanne Sutterlin, manager of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, gave a presentation on her government’s 2030 Plant Protection Vision, which focuses on innovative plant breeding and use of precision agriculture to cut pesticide use.

Regulatory considerations

“One of the things that’s clear, whether the issue is crop inputs or regulations, it is a global conversation,” Donohue said. “We wanted to use California’s sustainable product roadmap to 2050 to frame the conversation.”

And while Western Growers, which presented the summit with New Zealand-based ag tech consultancy Wharf42, continues to support the synthetic products that work well on pests, diseases and weeds, Donohue said regulatory issues are becoming more prominent in the U.S. and around the world as regulations phase out the use of certain synthetic products.

“The regulatory piece, and this is just my observation, is a lot like the pharmaceutical business, in the sense that it’s not just about having a product, there’s a regulatory regime you have to go through,” he said. “So from an investor’s standpoint, that factors into how long the (approval) process will be.”

Donohue said more than 300 participants representing growers, regulatory agencies, dealers, investors and other stakeholders attended the inaugural summit. Not everyone is ready to embrace biologicals.

“We wanted to have a constructive conversation about biologicals and a lot of the growers said, ‘Hey, we’re a little skeptical,’” Donohue said. “They didn’t all say that, but some did. And investors had the message that they want to mitigate risks and how they evaluate companies.”

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, capped the two-day event.

“He’s no biologicals expert per se, but he can talk about the importance of good policy,” Donohue said. “It ties into food security. Innovation certainly is to be encouraged, to deal with a lot of challenges in the world.

“The fact is that ag tech is a global game and we’re certainly promoting global cooperation and sharing knowledge,” he said.

Alex Cochran, chief technology officer at DPH Biologicals, participated in a panel involving researchers. He said the biologicals segment is on the verge of achieving solid market penetration.

“While broad grower acceptance hinges on more education and clarity, this marks a significant change from a few years ago,” Cochran said. “Much of the summit discussion centered on a ‘systems-based’ approach to broader market penetration, an acknowledgment of the opportunities for all the stakeholders.”

He said the right combination of speed-to-market, product fine-tuning and local field-testing is needed to meet grower demand.

“New product releases need to be data-verified, but we also must recognize that continual improvements are the nature of product development,” Cochran said. “The next step for broader adoption of biologicals is showing growers that these technologies work seamlessly in their operation.”

Accelerating biological innovation

The Salinas Biological Summit served as the launch pad for the Global Biological Accelerator, which will be based at the Western Growers Innovation & Technology Center. Field trials, however, will be taking place across the globe to give companies chosen to participate the ability to test results in different climates, crops and soil types.

By November, Donohue said accelerator participants should be chosen to allow the field tests during the next planting season.

“When you work with multiple stakeholders and different countries, you’ve got to get a consensus, but in the end we will be driven primarily by what tools we can replace and what (synthetic inputs) are at risk,” he said. “We want to solve problems for key commodities and challenges for the Western Growers network.”

Which align with the global specialty crop network, he said, because many California and Arizona growers export or have production partners throughout the Americas and other parts of the world, Donohue said.

“Our basic premise is that in order for things to scale and get to the right grower economics, you want to bring as much volume to bear that can help with grower economics and manufacturing economics,” he said. “I think we can send an interesting signal to investors, that hey, these products have attracted more interest, which may mean more investments and more R&D.”

— Chris Koger, managing editor

Top photo: Biological pest controls aren’t limited to sprays, and also include integrated pest management solutions such as those offered by Parabug.


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