Where are the new crop protection products?
A Bayer CropScience leader weighs in on hurdles to new product development
Posted: May 5, 2009
Growing international regulations and the need to please an increasing number of stakeholders are some of the key challenges to getting new crop protection products into the hands of farmers, says a representative of one of the world's largest pesticide manufacturers.
At the most recent Canadian Weed Science Society meeting, Dr. Iain Kelly, product safety manager with Bayer CropScience, outlined the key hurdles to new product development, among them the need to introduce new modes of action at a time of restrictive regulatory systems. On a global basis, approximately six fungicide targets, six herbicide targets and three insecticide targets account for more than 75 percent of market share.
"We're really dominating the market with few modes of action," says Kelly. "Certainly, as an industry, we believe there is a need for innovation to look for new modes of action and ones with favourable profiles with respect to safety, selectivity and sustainability. There are many things that we can continue to do with our products that holistically have a positive effect on their overall safety."
Though safety is always paramount to consider, it's important to realize the impact of pesticides is one of the most exhaustively studied areas. "We probably know more about the effects of pesticides than any other material that does get into the environment. With pharmaceuticals we probably know a little bit more about the individual responses, but overall pesticides have the best database from many, many studies."
Product developers face a dizzying array of demands from different stakeholders with often contradictory views, he says. Pleasing everyone is an immense challenge. But the primary focus is to ensure effective, safe products. "We have to continue to focus on genuine science risk. And we really need to look holistically and start to come together as to how the science translates into risk and how the societal values translate into risk. That debate needs to have a holistic, honest view, and as scientists we need to be involved."
Do we need new crop protection products?
There is a fundamental need for new product formulations, says Kelly, and one of the key drivers of this need is a growing population combined with a limited amount of arable land available to feed that population. The number of people one arable hectare is required to feed has increased from 1.7 people per hectare in the 1950s to four people per hectare in 2000, says Kelly. That number is expected to increase to seven people per hectare by the 2050s.
Compare that to the amount of available land suitable for growing crops. Kelly cites Hudson Institute figures from 2000 which estimate that the world is using about 12 percent of Earth's acreage in arable land. Without crop protection chemicals, Kelly says the world will be using 50 percent of its acreage for agriculture production as the Earth's population increases, with much of what is left over incapable of supporting growth.
Although the world is in need of new active ingredients, there are a number of factors slowing down the research and marketing processes. Today, new product development is a global game that demands the satisfaction of diverse regulations and often contradictory interests from all over the world.
"We clearly have a huge number of stakeholders. We have the regulatory authorities, we have the science community. The food industry is becoming more and more interested in residue in crops and how they can be reduced. It is starting to become much more active in this area by setting residue limits below regulatory limits."
Apart from the outside influencers, there are internal logistics – both in companies and in the industry - that have slowed down the discovery of new active ingredients, says Kelly. Most of these come down to time and cost. Costs to bring a product to market have grown from around $25 million in the late '70s to $270 million in 2007.
Time from discovery to market is also increasing. Kelly says the average time from active ingredient discovery to the time it hits the market has increased from eight to 10 years between 1995 and 2007.
At least part of the reason for growing time and costs can be pegged on the wider range of disciplines - including genetic engineering, bioinformation and nanotechnology - working on new active ingredients today. At the same time, the ability to screen hundreds of thousands of compounds for active ingredients has grown dramatically thanks to ultra high throughput screening. Despite this, there are less active ingredients being discovered today than in the past, says Kelly. "A lot of compounds fail between greenhouse testing and field screening."
The safety question
Safety to humans and the environment continues to be one of the key drivers behind the growing role of regulatory issues in product development. The bottom line on safety, says Kelly, is that the pesticide industry has a strong database from which to make decisions. "We're not working in a vacuum. We can make sensible predictions in many, many areas," he says. "We never really stop testing the safety of compounds."
Balancing safety with efficacy is an ongoing battle, says Kelly. "If you would like to see rapid degradation in each of the compartments you're looking at, you're going to have low risk for residues in soil and water, but you're not necessarily going to get the same kind of efficacy. So then you're looking at additional applications which mean more fossil fuel use. These things have to be balanced."
Ultimately, much of the work to ensure pesticide safety is going to be done at the farm level, he says. "Growers clearly want to be able to grow as effectively, efficiently and I think as responsibly as possible. In a lot of ways a lot of the safety issues we do face come down to stewardship. There's a tremendous amount we can do and continue to do."
On the industry and science side, all of this points to a need to focus on genuine science risk and to be actively involved in the debate between societal values and risk. "We need to look at the risk of agrochemicals versus more land use versus many more risks and benefits."
For more information on the 2008 Canadian Weed Science Society annual meeting, see this Canada Sprayer Guide Special Report.
Author: Jeff Melchior and Brad Brinkworth
Sponsored by: Meristem Information Resources Ltd.