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A court order to ban all uses of a decades-old chemical insecticide could open the door for newer, potentially less toxic pest-killers to replace it, and at least one U.S. company is hoping to profit from the switch.
In a 2-1 decision in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Wheeler, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Aug. 9 ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban all crop uses of the insecticide chlorpyrifos within 60 days.
The move would leave farmers with one less tool to fight insects, and could provide an opportunity for bio-based pesticides, which are obtained from plants, bacteria, and other microbes.
Their manufacturers say they pose less harm to the environment and health than older chemical pesticides, but they don’t kill as many pests at once as chlorpyrifos.
Environmentalists have sought to take chlorpyrifos off the market for decades, because of studies linking exposure to developmental delays in children. Hawaii’s governor recently signed a bill prohibiting the pesticide in the state, and California also is set to impose additional restrictions following a panel of scientists’ recommendation that it be listed as a toxic air pollutant.
Executives at Marrone Bio Innovations say they knew chlorpyrifos was headed for the exits well before the court order.
The Davis, Calif., company met July 26 with California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation Director Brian Leahy.
Pam Marrone, the company’s CEO, and Keith Pitts, its chief sustainability officer, wanted to show Leahy how the company’s two bacterial insecticides, Grandevo and Venerate, could be used in rotation with other products to kill flies, mealybugs, leafhoppers, mites, and other bugs that plague California farmers growing grapes, almonds, citrus, and berries.
“All of them were shovel-ready, meaning you could use alternatives today,” Marrone told Bloomberg Environment.
Department spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe told Bloomberg Environment that Leahy is “excited” about the potential for biopesticides, but was careful not to recommend or endorse a particular company or product.
“These are simply another potential tool for growers to consider if appropriate,” Fadipe said in an email.
Marrone Bio Innovations’ revenue has more than tripled since 2014, from $9.1 million to an estimated $29.4 million this year, according to Bloomberg data.
But Jay Vroom, CEO of the agricultural pesticide trade association CropLife America, dismissed the possibility of a chlorpyrifos ban outright, telling Bloomberg Environment he expects the government to appeal the decision.
“We’re absolutely confident we’ll keep chlorpyrifos,” he said.
There’s also room for traditional chemical pesticides to fill the gap. A 2014 report from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources network identified dozens of pesticide active ingredients that could be used if chlorpyrifos is no longer an option—though none kill the broad spectrum of pests for as many crops as chlorpyrifos does.
They range from sulfur and the evergreen-derived neem oil, which are accepted in organic agriculture, to insecticides that belong to the neonicotinoid or pyrethroid families—pesticides that have also become the target of environmentalists for their effects on bees and aquatic organisms.
Some of the biggest agricultural chemical companies, including Bayer AG, Monsanto Co., and BASF, have entered the biopesticides sphere.
Smaller companies, including Marrone, Italy’s Isagro and the Netherlands’ Koppert, are also entering the fray, according to a report from MarketsandMarkets, a global market research firm based in India. Globally, the biopesticides market is projected to be worth about $6.6 billion by 2022, roughly double where it stands today.
The overall global pesticide market, including natural pesticides, is about $50 billion. The global value market for pesticides is projected to reach $81.1 billion by 2019, according to Oristep Consulting.
The ban on chlorpyrifos is expected to shift the demand towards alternative products available in the market, Shivanand Balagali, the associate manager for agriculture at MarketsandMarkets, told Bloomberg Environment.
“Going by consumer and environmental trends, the EPA ban of chlorpyrifos is set to drive the demand for biopesticides in the U.S. and many other countries,” Balagali said in an email.
Use of chlorpyrifos has dropped by half in California over the last decade, according to state DPR data. California is often a bellwether for national use trends, given its role as a top U.S. agricultural producer. It is also one of the few states that tracks pesticide use data.
Still, more than 900,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos was sprayed in 2016, the latest year with available data, making it the 29th-most-sprayed pesticide in the state.
Alternatives may be available, but they lack the punch of chlorpyrifos, which kills multiple pests at once, Beth Grafton-Cardwell, a scientist working with citrus farmers as part of the University of California Cooperative Extension, told Bloomberg Environment.
“The loss of it will put a lot of pressure on the few remaining pesticides,” Grafton-Cardwell said.
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