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For Farmers, the Chemical vs Biological Pesticide Divide Is More Nuanced

The debate around traditional chemicals versus new biological pesticides can be a dividing one in wider society. When it comes to farmers, some are happy to have one foot in the past, and another in the future.

Those giving biological options a go flit between a chemical like diamide and a naturally-derived microbial-based alternative from one year to the next, according to Corteva. The rationale is some insects will get a certain degree of resistance to the chemical spray, so switching makes sense.

“Sometimes people think that there’s sort of a competitive either/or when it comes to that. But because of insect resistance, farmers actually rotate,” CEO Chuck Magro said on a call. “They use it as a complementary system.”

This is of course is the view of Corteva, a $35 billion company built on traditional chemistry that’s now expanding in more sustainable, naturally-derived products. Selling both types of product gives it a vantage point over how things are playing out in the field.

Corteva developed spinosyns via a bread-refined natural fermentation process. In just a few years, the spinosyns business has grown from $700 million to $1 billion. That’s still less than 5% of group revenue although new developments are coming thick and fast. The company has a total of more than 17,000 patents, and another 4,400 pending, yet the largest active ingredient in the pipeline would be spinosyns.

By contrast, in herbicides, there hasn’t been a new molecule for decades. Despite the controversy surrounding the product, glyphosate remains the go-to option for many. Bayer recently announced an EU220 million investment in a new R&D facility in Germany in a fresh bid to come up with a next generation of crop protection to rival this notorious chemical that has left it saddled with billions in liabilities due to alleged health risks.

One worry in some corners is that generic insecticides could gain traction next year if farmers’ budgets are tight, stunting the growth of Corteva’s spinosyns franchise just as it gets going. But Magro doesn’t see that happening either.

After years of being sold out, Corteva last year had to bring forward a de-bottlenecking project. By ironing out some pinch points in its production process, it was able to boost capacity of spinosyns by 50% and now volumes are “ramping up quite nicely,” according to the CEO.

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