CFN Media Interviews Marrone Bio Innovations’ CSO Keith Pitts
May 4th, 2018
Cannabis cultivators must protect their plants at all costs, whether it’s from mites, mold, or harsh chemicals. Marrone Bio Innovations (MBII) is a biopesticides company that offers several products specially formulated to offer a holistic approach to pest management for crops of all types. The Davis, California-based company is comprised of experts dedicated to discovering, developing, and commercializing naturally derived technologies for platform of pest management and plant health products that are used in agricultural, turf and ornamental, and water treatment applications.
CFN Media spoke with Marrone Bio Chief Sustainability Officer Keith Pitts at the recent Terpenes and Testing World Conference in San Jose to learn more about the company’s innovative approach to plant wellness.
CFN: What approach does Marrone Bio take to the biopesticides space?
Keith Pitts: Our bread and butter is microbial pesticides. We collect soil samples from all over the world, isolate individual microbial strains and then we have a series of bioassays that we run to see if a product has efficacy against a targeted pest. Once we identify something as having potential as a pesticide or biostimulant, we do a lot more work to see if it’s feasible economically.
We have a fermentation plant in Michigan; it was important to us to have a US-based manufacturing base. Fermentation facilities are a little difficult to come by these days, but fundamentally our model is a lot like pharmaceutical companies. We do similar screening for activity, in our case it’s for agricultural purposes. We do have a few water-related products as well. We also focus on the metabolites that our microbes produce. Some of the older biopesticides focus on pathogenic mode of actions or viruses that have pathogenicity against a targeted pest, all very valuable tools most certainly, but I think what’s unique about our company is, we do focus on the chemistry of our microbes and we have an 18,000 microbe collection.
The interesting thing about microbes is if you feed them different fermentation media or food, you often get different metabolite profiles. So, sometimes, we can get multiple products from a single microbe. A good example is a microbe that we isolated and we’ve been able to create an insecticidal product out of that particular microbe, also a nematicidal product and we’re currently working on the herbicidal product with that same microbe and again it’s just feeding it different media and seeing what happens.
All of our products are formulated for organic agriculture, but interestingly enough, about 70-80% of our sales are actually into conventional agriculture where you have farmers that are using biopesticides to deal with things like pesticide residue management. All of our products are what EPA calls Food Tolerance Exempt, so we don’t have to worry about maximum residue levels with our biopesticides, so you’ll get a lot of farmers that are using our products throughout the season in an IPM strategy to avoid having a chemical residue on their product by the time it gets to the marketplace. I also know that’s a key selling point that we’ve heard from cannabis growers that they really are focused on avoiding chemical residues on their products and we have a nice fit there.
CFN: How has the company progressed since its inception?
KP: We have seven products on the market now. In addition to the agricultural focus, we also have a microbial product that controls Zebra and Quagga mussels, which are invasive mussels that got introduced from Eastern Europe through ballast water. But how we came to cannabis is, in March of last year the Biological Products Industry Alliance had their annual winter meeting in Reno, Nevada. While we were there we had several growers affiliated with Oaksterdam University come by our booth to talk about how our products were being used as building blocks of cannabis cultivation, and that’s when we found out that our products were being used quite a bit in the cannabis industry, particularly Regalia, which is a biofungicide for powdery mildew control and Grandevo, which is a miticide.
I have to give a shout out to Natalie Darves, an Oaksterdam instructor and cannabis grower, who developed a discussion with a broader segment of the industry. With her guidance, we invited leaders in the Califronia cannabis industry to come to Marrone Bio in April and to instruct MBI more intensively about the industry and what their needs were. Following those meetings we started working on special local need labels, with states where cannabis was legal, mainly to give very specific instructions about how to use our products in cannabis cultivation methods.
Grandevo and Venerate are a good one-two punch for insect, mite and nematode control. If you’re trying to be sustainable, you need to have an integrated approach, so you need to be mixing different products in when you’re looking for pest control. We’ll continue to focus on that: offering multiple tools to growers so it is a legitimate, integrated, and sustainable pest management approach.
CFN: What sets you apart from potential competitors in the space?
KP: Biopesticides in general are all-natural. They will be plant extracts or microbial products or pheromone products. They’re all going to be largely reduced risk. Most all of them are tolerance exempt. What separates us from the broader biopesticide community from synthetic pesticides is we spend a lot of time focusing on the kind of “natural chemicals” that are produced by our microbes or metabolites.
Of the microbial products we have on the marketplace, two of them are dead microbes, so they’re not viable, so you’re not having to be concerned about coliform unit counts when you’re using our products. Since we are able to have a marketable product from a non-viable microbe, it also helps a lot with storage, stability, and shelf life, as our organic compliant do not need special handling requirements to be commercially effective.
Thirty years ago, one of the challenges with biopesticides is they tended to either needed to be frozen or a cold-chain to be effective, which made them a challenge for growers to integrate into pest management strategies. By research and design,MBI products are formulated to be effective and stable at room temperature for two years, or more without worry about degradation of activity against the targeted pest.
Another unique aspect about biochemicals specifically, are that the EPA has a special requirement that to qualify as a biochemical a registratant, like MBI, has to demonstrate a non-toxic mode of action against a targeted pest. This means the biochemical product, can’t have contact toxicity against the targeted pest. Biochemicals must have some kind of secondary mode of action. As a perfect example, for biochemical designation, our powdery mildew product, Regalia is an extract of giant knotweed, a plant that’s native to Asia and used and a food product. Giant knotweed was brought over to the United States, like a lot of plants were, as an ornamental and nutritional fodder plant for cattle, and it ended up being an invasive weed. It’s turned out to be a major problem in parts of the US, as far as its invasivity. But, our research shows this plant does have an upside!
Regalia is a very interesting product. You can take Regalia and spray it on a plant pathogen and it’s going to do nothing to that plant pathogen. The pathogen’s going to continue to grow. What happens with Regalia and some other biopesticides is, when applied applied to plants, they have what’s called an Induced Systemic Response, which means when you spray the product on the plant, there are metabolites in the plant extract that, when they come in contact with growing tissue of a plant, the metabolites induces the crop to produce compounds, like phytoalexins that b help the plant ward off disease. Regalia is the plant version of an innoculatoin against disease.
Regalia is more like a vaccination or inoculation against disease versus an actual pesticide, which is typically a toxic contact toxic against a specific disesae. Interestingly,
Regalia has not only a disease control mode of action but it also has some plant health aspects as well. In the case of Regalia, specifically, we’ve done work with wine-grape growers, where it’s been noted that when Regalia’s applied, some of the compounds that give grapes and wine their flavor profile are enhanced, so we have some wine-grape growers that are using Regalia for disease control, but they’re also using it to enhance the flavor profile of the grapes. We’ve seen similar things happen in other crops, either increased protein content in wheat or alfalfa or increased sugar content in sugar cane. You see these additional benefits with Induced Systemic Response that you’re not going to get with a typical chemical/synthetic fungicide. So, certainly this is an area we’re going to explore with Regalia and cannabis. Can the use of Regalia enhance the terpenoid and cannabinoid (CBD, THC) profile of cannabis is an important research focus for MBI.
CFN: What exposure does Marrone offer potential investors?
KP: Certainly, within the Biopesticide space, we are one of the few independent companies that hasn’t been absorbed by a large company. In 12 years in the market, we have seven biopesticides products in the market that are meeting critical needs for growers. Additionally, we have 3 other products that are registered by EPA and we’re currently working to roll into the marketplace. There’s not really any other company out there that has that kind of track record as far as bringing new products onto the marketplace.
Now that we’re investing in developing products that specifically work with the cannabis industry, we’re going to continue to grow our presence in this market space. We have a long term commitment to the cannabis industry, and will continue to use our science and expertise to create more tools for the cannabis industry in both the US and Canada.
CFN: What are your expectations for growth?
KP: In the United States, any of the new active ingredients that we have developed, we’ve already achieved approval with the EPA. We do have a new herbicidal product we’ll be submitting this year, so we’ll continue taking our existing product portfolio and developing market segments for all those products. We are increasingly more outward focused on what we do next. Right now we only have Regalia and the Zebra and Quagga mussel control product registered in Canada. So we are going to be working to get our two insecticides, Grandevo and Venerate, registered in Canada. We have been developing efficacy data in Canada on those products, as an insecticide. Both Venerate and Grandevo have an important role to play in the both Canadian cannabis and agricultural production.
We do have another fungicidal product that’s currently in the review process in Canada. It’s a bacillus-based fungicide. We will be looking for opportunities to develop that in the cannabis space. It is both a foliar applied and soil applied fungicide. Similar to what we see with Regalia, we see plant health benefits in addition to disease control with that product. It has a little bit different spectrum than Regalia; it’s more focused on botrytis, molds and downy mildew versus powdery mildew, which is the real strength of the formula.
In addition to continuing to work with our distribution partners and growers, in a very hands on way with our products in the US, we are going to continue moving into Canada and getting our products introduced for both the agricultural and cannabis markets. We have recently hired a cannabis master grower specialist, Joshua Pacheco, who lives in the Pacific Northwest to service the cannabis market. He is specifically focused on working with cannabis growers and distributors to make sure our products are developed to service the cannabis market and, also, to ensure information is developed in a way that’s useful for cannabis growers.
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