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  • Writer's pictureRoger Tripathi

Why Biopesticides? Listen to this podcast with our very own Pam Marrone (GBAL & PBI).

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

Our partner and executive chair of GBAL and PBI, Pam Marrone PhD, was recently interviewed by Organic Wine Podcast. We wish to share an excerpt of that podcast interview with Pam Marrone.


Biologicals are naturally derived from microorganisms or from plant extracts. Most are allowed in organic viticulture and agriculture, yet they integrate so well into conventional programs and can help transition conventional farmers to organic farming. Many of the biologicals Pam has helped develop over the years, are now the standards for organic crop protection and plant health used across the wine industry.

This fascinating field of study is far behind where it should be, and that means there are exciting opportunities for discoveries and investment still to come. Pam is a fantastic spokesperson for biologicals, and makes a convincing case for their importance in an industry dominated by petro-chemicals.


Welcome Pam . . . it's good to have you speak with us. What have you been up to since your retirement from Marrone BioInnovations?

“I’m now Partner and Executive Chairperson of a unique company that’s called Primary BioAg Innovations and Global BioAg Linkages. We’re tired of seeing so many bio-product innovations not get to market and get the adoption that we think they should; that are really great innovations but they just don’t get the kind of commercial adoption that they should. So, we’re helping innovators commercialize and gain adoption of their BioAg innovations. I’m really excited by that.” 

Fantastic. So, let’s step back. So tell me . . .  the world that you work in - biologicals - what is that and how would you explain it to somebody on the street?

“Yeah, so, just like Penicillin came from a mold, or your antibiotics come from microbes, or breast cancer drug, Taxol, came from the Pacific yew - biologicals are the same; they’re natural substances that can be found out in nature, in the rainforest, or even like one that Marrone Bio found from an organic rice field in Northern California where one of our products came from, or a Buddhist temple garden in Japan; and we take those microbes or plants and identify the substances that are causing the pesticidal activity and turn them into products that can be sprayed on the crop or put in the soil or on the seed to control pests and improve crop growth.”

Got it. It’s like producing products from the natural biology and soils and plants that can replace synthetic petro-chemical pesticides.

“That’s correct. And in some cases, they do replace synthetic chemicals, in some cases, if it’s a conventional farmer, or an organic farmer that can’t use chemicals - they might want to combine them together and get better results than chemical-only programs. We see that time and time again. So, they could rotate them to stop the bugs from developing resistance or use them in a tank mixture and use a lower amount of the chemical and they can get better results and also, as I said, stop the pests, plant pathogens and plant diseases from developing resistance where they don’t work anymore.”

So, I can see how it’s important for you to promote that aspect of them - that they are very easy to integrate with conventional agriculture practices because that’s the majority of agriculture that’s happening right now, so to have the adoption, we need to get those people involved. Do you see it as a sort of gateway drug to going fully biological or fully organic or are you not as concerned about that?

“Oh, no, I absolutely do see it as a gateway drug. There’s no question in my mind that even today’s biologicals, you could develop a whole biological program. But, as the basis of your pest-management or plant health program and then only dial-in chemicals when needed, but we’re not there yet. You know, the infrastructure and the status quo is not quite there yet. It’s been a tough road just getting the integration of biologicals into conventional . . . nevermind going all biological . . . but it’s definitely possible. For example . . . I can give you an example . . . when a toxic chemical was banned for controlling Codling moth in the western United States, everyone, the growers were up in arms, ‘What are we going to do, what are we going to do?’. Well, there was a wide area program, regional wide program, University of California, grower groups, and pheromone companies that use pheromones as an alternative, and indeed, mating disruption pheromones became the basis for controlling Codling moth in the western United States across all fruit and nut growing areas. Very successful. And then, if in a really bad year, the pheromone isn’t quite strong enough, you might then now supplement it with a biopesticide, another biological, or a reduced-risk chemical. So, there’s a great example of where biologicals became the basis of the whole pest-management program. We’re seeing that that’s possible now for Navel Orangeworm in almonds. The almond board has thrown their weight behind getting to more sustainability and there’s great data showing that you can control Navel Orangeworm pheromones, but sometimes, when there’s just higher populations, you need something to supplement and Marrone Bio has shown that you can supplement with a microbial biopesticide in combination or, even not with, but you can do it in combination with a reduced-risk chemical pesticide, But if you’re organic, you don’t need to and can just use the pheromone plus the biopesticide.” 

Great. And let me just ask a clarification question. Are all biological controls or pesticides allowed in organic farming?

“No. Actually, there’s a few exceptions. There’s a couple that do not have inert ingredients. So those will be the carriers, the dispersing agents, the preservatives and such that are not on the organic allowed list. So, in order to be organically listed, your active ingredient has to be approved by the National Organic Program if it’s a biopesticide, or if it’s a plant stimulant, or a fertilizer by OMRI, and then your inert ingredients have to be also approved, in the case of a biopesticide, by the National Organic Program or OMRI if it’s a biostimulant or a biofertilizer. So, there are some natural materials that are registered as chemical pesticides that are allowed in organic. Why? Because they’re from a natural source and they don’t contain any non-allowed inner ingredients. But, why are they registered as chemical pesticides? And there’s two examples. One would be Spinosad. Entrust is the brand name of the organic formulation. And then the Pyrethrum flowers and brand name, PyGanic; those are registered as chemical pesticides because they have a toxic mode of action to the pest and they have some non-target effects, but they are allowed in organic because they’re from all natural materials.”

That’s interesting. So, you still have to be a little bit careful as an organic farmer - what you spray. You know, just because it’s biological doesn’t mean it’s necessarily non-toxic.

“Correct. That’s right. Just because it’s from nature or biological doesn’t mean it’s not toxic - you have to prove it. And if you go through the Biopesticide Pollution Prevention Division at the EPA, it is the safest category of products. It’s hard to really get that classification, if your natural plant extract or something that’s a biochemical, it’s really hard to get that designation as a biochemical biopesticide. You have to go before a committee that meets and says, ‘This has a non-toxic mode of action.’ So, you know if it’s registered by the EPA as a biopesticide, rest assured that it’s been given a real look at everything related to toxicology, and endangered species, and acceptability for food and so forth.”


To listen to the podcast in its entirety, click on the link down below:


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