Interview: Bioherbicides are the 'holy grail' within biologicals

Sanjiv Rana talks with Rizobacter’s Business Development & Portfolio Manager (International Division), Guido M Ramirez Caceres, to discuss the company’s plans for biologicals.

SR: What have been Rizobacter’s highlights in the past year in terms of biological licensing deals with other companies or any acquisitions made?

Guido M Ramirez Caceres (GRC): In the last year, we have finalised agreements with Marrone Bio Innovations for the exclusive distribution in Brazil and Paraguay of their bionematicide technology for seed application.

SR: What will be the impact of Rizobacter’s parent company Bioceres’ acquisition of Marrone Bio Innovations?

GRC: We are all very excited about the opportunities that this merger can create, but until the deal is confirmed (in the third quarter), we cannot make any further comments.

SR: Some of the drivers of increased interest and investment in biologicals have been pressures of public opinion and increased regulatory scrutiny of existing chemical actives. Do you view biologicals as having a role in tackling pest resistance to chemical actives in all crops?

GRC: We believe biologicals are a key tool for agronomists and farmers as their modes of action are different to those from chemicals and using them in a rotation has the capability of delaying resistance occurrence.

SR: What are some commercialisation challenges specific to biological products that make them easier or harder to bring to market compared with chemical actives?

GRC: Biologicals are in many cases novel technologies for agronomists and farmers. Even though they have become more popular in recent years, there is still a portion of potential customers that are not aware of the value biologicals can add to their operations. So, increasing awareness is a continuous effort by the whole industry. Also, biologicals have sometimes specific storage and application recommendations which need to be explained to the user properly and can be difficult to achieve in some markets. Additionally, biologicals are deployed in a highly complex system where there are multiple interactions with plants, soil and climate. Knowledge on these interactions is expanding quickly.

SR: Limited shelf life and costlier transportation have often been cited as factors against widespread use of biological products. Have there been recent formulation advancements to overcome these?

GRC: It might still be a challenge with some formulations that have living microbes from some species which are hard to keep in good numbers in a product package. In general terms, I believe the industry has improved quite a lot in recent years. In our case and just as an example, our first peat-based Rhizobial inoculants had just a couple months of shelf life. Now, and after 45 years of constantly investing in R&D and production, we have liquid Rhizobial inoculants that have two.

SR: New EU rules for biopesticide approval are expected to come into place by November. Will the new rules reduce the regulatory burden on companies? Will it make registration easier and faster?

GRC: New rules are expected to reduce the regulatory burden as they propose a more fit-for-purpose approach towards new registrations. We hope it makes the registration process faster and less expensive so that farmers can have more biological tools available.

SR: Is Rizobacter on the lookout for new acquisition opportunities or is the focus more on organic growth of existing strains within your portfolio?

GRC: We have historically focused on organic growth but now, with the support of our main shareholder Bioceres Crop Solutions, we do not discard merger and acquisition opportunities to augment our reach in terms of portfolio and/or territory expansion.

SR: Most biopesticides have been insecticides or fungicides or nematicides. Do you see a market for bioherbicides?

GRC: Bioherbicides are kind of the “holy grail” within biologicals as its extremely challenging to achieve a product that can meet market demand in terms of cost effectiveness. We believe that there’s great potential and have been actively scouting for different sources of innovation within the segment.

SR: Which new biological products were launched by Rizobacter during 2021/2022? In which of the recently launched biological products do you see the most potential for success?

GRC: During 2021/22, we have launched the first product in a new line of granular Rhizobial inoculants for North America, two microbial biostimulants and one biofungicide in Brazil, as well as new liquid inoculants for lupins in Europe. The Brazilian market is developing rapidly and some of our technologies specially designed for the upstream seed application offer great value to our clients in the seed multiplication business. In this segment, we are convinced that we can be leaders through our innovative portfolio of biologicals and our unmatched customer service.

SR: Which are some promising biological products about to be launched or in the registration pipeline?

GRC: We are very excited about the prospects for our seed-applied biofungicide in the EU, which we expect to launch in 2025. In the nearer term, we are adapting a formulation technology from the pharma industry that can allow us to increase the concentration of our liquid inoculants by 5-10 times. This has the potential to be a gamechanger in the upstream seed applications, for example, and is aligned with our corporate targets of developing efficacious new products with a reduced carbon footprint.

SR: What has been the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on your operations?

GRC: We are deeply saddened by the situation and hope that peace arrives soon. Our team in Ukraine has faced these challenging times with extraordinary courage and strength. In the case of our inoculant business, logistics disruption and a lower sowing area for soybeans will possibly have an effect and consequences for next season, but it is still a bit early to tell. In any case, we plan to continue with our expansion plans in the country as we believe that our technologies can assist farmers to produce more in a sustainable manner.