Nestled in a lush Italian valley, a dozen or so miles from the Adriatic Sea, are the makings of agriculture’s future.

The use of biologicals to improve plant health, soil health and deliver more sustainable plant production overall is part of a global trend that’s sweeping seed, nutrient and crop protection industries across the globe. At Valagro’s headquarters in Atessa, Italy, last fall, Agri-Pulse gained a firsthand look at the possibilities.

Giuseppe Natale, who cofounded the company in 1980, made clear that his team’s passion for helping growers do “more using less resources” was a driving force behind Valagro's research into the production and marketing of biostimulants and specialty nutrients.

The firm offered so much potential that it was acquired by Syngenta Crop Protection in 2020, enabling growth in scale and technology. In 2019, Valagro generated $175 million in revenue and now has more than 700 employees, 13 subsidiaries and eight production sites worldwide.

The opportunities with Valagro hit home with Corey Huck, global head of Syngenta Biologicals, who grew up on a Nebraska farm and still owns farmland there.

“Climate change is here and it’s real,” he said while describing losses to hail, drought or flooding over the years in Nebraska where his brother, who farms the land, is trying to cope with all of the extreme conditions.  

From no-till to crop diversification and precision agriculture, Huck is looking at the broader concept of regenerative agriculture and how to be more strategic with investments that continue to position the firm as a global leader. “It’s an area that has a lot of focus and it’s in its early days,” he explained.

Cory_Huck_Syngenta_836.jpgCorey Huck, Syngenta Biologicals

Currently, Syngenta, part of the Syngenta Group, is the top crop protection company globally and number three in seeds, following Bayer and Corteva. In the biologicals category, Invivo Bioline is the leader, followed by BASF, and Koppert and Syngenta are basically tied for third, according to The Context Network, an agricultural consulting firm. Almost every major crop protection company, along with newer upstarts like ProFarm, Pivot Bio and Indigo are racing ahead with their biological portfolios.

“Connecting science with nature is really what our biological strategy is all about,” he said. “It’s about how do we meet the demand of consumers with a more sustainable crop, more sustainable food.”

Huck emphasized that biologicals are not new. “Biologicals were used long before synthetic chemistries by our great-, great-grandfathers and grandmothers. What’s so different now is the application of science.” And that alone can be a game changer.

He admitted that this has historically been an area of the crop protection and seed business that “really didn’t have that much science going on … it was kind of snake oils, and add this product, and we’ll do everything as an elixir.” 

But as Syngenta pursued its regenerative agriculture journey, Valagro became an attractive part of the solution. Huck said the market for biologicals was valued at about $4 billion in 2022 and growing at 9-10% compound annual growth rate.

At Valagro, Huck found the same type of “science we would have applied to the rest of our products agenda, the level of understanding and the prescriptive nature of what the products do.” Plus, there was the “do say” ratio, which means “if you say the product is going to do this in the field, then it’s going to do that and the science is supporting that.” 

Huck said it will be important to set expectations with growers about using biologicals as part of a “third-way” approach.

“We don't see a future where it's all synthetic crop protection or it's all biologicals. We see a third way where it's actually a combination of two of those in a complementary way … to grow a crop in the best way I possibly can.” 

Industry analysts agree that biologicals will continue to play a larger role in global agriculture, although they may differ on some definitions and market size. For example, The Context Network pegs the total biologicals market at $8.6 billion in 2022 with a forecast CAGR of 10.5%.

Mike Borel is a partner at The Context Network, whose consulting firm has been analyzing and serving the biologicals market throughout its 30-year history. In 2018, his firm started developing a biennial global report analyzing the growing market and its segments, most recently in 2022. In addition to consulting for agriculture and food industries, along with his brother Jim and sister Jane, he and his siblings own and operate farmland in north central Iowa.

“My belief is that biologicals are going to become an increasing part of crop protection and crop enhancement,” Borel said. “I don't expect they'll ever be bigger than the synthetic portion. But they'll be very significant in the part they play.” 

Mike-Borel-Context-Network.jpegMike Borel, The Context Network

Borel said that if he had a magic wand and could do just one thing for the industry, “I would get rid of all the snake oil, the junk, because it taints the whole industry. Fortunately, there's also a lot of good products, with more, and better, coming.”

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“It’s important to realize the technology for discovery and optimization has really advanced in the last five years,” he added. “We're not quite seeing it yet, but we're beginning to see it in products that are way more efficacious than we've been used to for biologicals, and ultimately we'll get to products that are head-to-head competitive with the speed and degree of control. But still, they're not going to replace all the synthetics.”

When it comes to the global regulation of biological products, Borel said Europe is the largest market and also has the most stringent regulations. EU officials require biologicals for pest management to go through the same multiyear registration process as synthetics.

“We have a hugely abbreviated biologicals registration process in the U.S., and Brazil is closer to the U.S. model than Europe,” he explained, in part because biologicals are assumed safe because they originated in the environment. In Brazil, a huge agricultural competitor to the U.S., “it’s not quite as easy for companies to gain approval as the U.S., but close,” Borel added.

Assessing the market potential, Borel said, the biggest category tends to be biocontrol or biopesticide products, and the next category is biostimulants, which are commonly viewed as crop and soil enhancers.  

“We further segmented each of those biopesticides into bioherbicides, biofungicides, bioinsecticides, bionematicides and then there are products like plant growth regulators, some of which fit into this category,” he said. “And in the soil enhancers, you've got biostimulants and also bionutrition products.” 

In general, he said biocontrol products like biopesticides are more frequently used in tree fruit, vine and vegetables, and the lion’s share of biostimulant products are used more often in row crops.

So how does a grower ground truth all of these options? Borel said the land-grant universities are certainly one source, “although universities aren't what they once were back when I was young. The research and extension service did an awful lot more of this kind of work than they do today.” 

His advice to growers trying to make a decision: “The most important question is: Can you show me your quality, replicated data with a commercial standard and a check?” 

“If they have quality data they will be only too happy to share it,” Borel said. “If they don't have quality data, and they start saying, we've got all these strip trials, we've got all these demonstrations. … If that's the case, recommend they conduct quality trials, and walk away.”

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