Sep 16, 2020

The pesticide paradox: How innovations in biology are making the world a greener, cleaner place

by Joshua Robinson, Ph.D, Director, Business Development

Malcolm Gladwell floated a popular theory he called the “10,000-hour rule” on achieving elite levels of performance. He wrote that “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” While studies have been chipping away at the 10,000-hour rule for years, essentially debunking the theory as a hard-and-fast law, the underlying principle of development remains true—the more you do something the better you get at it.

So it is with material production. Nature has a four-billion-year head start on humankind in developing materials (the equivalent of about 35 trillion hours of practice). Nature—biology in particular—is a superior manufacturer, making everything from clam shells to rubber to plants with medicinal properties, because it’s taken billions of years of evolution to do so. And now, advancements in science and technology enable us to partner with nature, allowing for new combinations of genes and material properties that don’t take billions of years to make—instead they take weeks.

At Zymergen, we’ve developed a suite of technologies that enable us to unlock nature’s superpowers and harness biology to manufacture materials and products. We call it “biofacturing.” We build on what nature started (why let four billion years of research go to waste?) and develop novel, natural materials and products never imagined before—and make these products, more cost-effectively and more sustainably. We are driving real change in material science and development—from electronics to agriculture—but one area of particular focus right now is improving the way pesticides are made.

Why Pesticides?

Since the broad commercial adoption of herbicides and pesticides, agricultural productivity and food supplies around the globe have grown to meet the exploding demand of both humans and animals. This necessary increase in production has come with trade-offs, though, as some traditional chemical pesticides can be linked with a number of undesirable side effects. Beyond human and environmental impacts, insect resistance to pesticides is a growing challenge and crops around the world face an increasing number of threats.

The agriculture industry is now facing an impending proliferation of pests that are resistant to current chemical pesticides, as well as migrations of non-native species into agriculture belts. Pests like fall armyworm and stinkbug, that can cause untold billions in damage to crops are taking toeholds in new ecosystems because of climate change.

Map of fall armyworm spread in Africa. Credit: The Economist

Global armyworm spread. Credit: CABI

In many cases, traditional pesticides are proving ineffective against new generations of pests. And chemical response times are slow. It takes on average 12-15 years to bring a new product to market. Meanwhile, threats are evolving quicker than researchers can churn out new solutions to fight them. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • 20-41% loss in global rice and maize yield due to pests & pathogens
  • 35% decline in US honeybee population in 2019
  • 100% increase in the number of weed species resistant to herbicides over the last 20 years. 100 million acres of row crops in the US that have been infested with herbicide resistant weeds.

To add to this complexity, by the year 2050 there will be 10 billion people on the planet, which means producing 50% more food and livestock feed than is produced today. Pesticides are crucial to making this happen, but how do we feed the planet without harming it further along the way? We’ve chosen to focus on three key areas that highlight the need for “meaner and greener” pesticides: environmental, economic and social factors.

Environmental Impact

The paradox of pesticides is of course best illustrated by the environmental impacts commonly associated with their manufacture and use. Ideally, a pesticide must be lethal to the targeted pests, but not to non-target species. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, so the debate around the tradeoff of pesticides continues. This is what we hope to solve by partnering with nature and rethinking how a pesticide works—how you make it both meaner to targeted pests but greener for non-targeted species.

It’s no secret that for all the good they provide, pesticides can still contaminate soil, water and other vegetation. In addition to killing insects (or weeds), pesticides can be toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and humans.

The introduction of synthetic insecticides in the 1960s, carbamates in the 1970s and pyrethroids in 1980s contributed greatly to pest control and agricultural output. Toxicity aside, it’s generally thought that industry reached a peak in terms of the efficacy of chemical products in agriculture, but that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for new, safer ways of controlling pests using biology.

Economic Impact

As part of their Ecological Agriculture Projects, researchers at McGill University published a report claiming that “synthetic pesticide use has increased 33 fold in the U.S. since 1945.” They also found that despite a tenfold increase in the amount and toxicity of synthetic insecticides used, crop yield reductions due to insects have nearly doubled in the last 40 years. How can pesticides be more toxic yet damages increase? Furthermore, what are the costs associated with this effectively upside-down price vs. performance model?

When it comes to food products—the end products consumers really care about—it can be difficult to separate the direct costs from the adjacent ‘hidden costs’ that result from extensive pesticide and herbicide use. Things like the cost of the environmental degradation, human and animal health risks, compliance with government regulations, pest resistance, and losses of pollinators. How much is that worth—or said differently, what’s the larger cost to people and the planet? Current estimates of the environmental and social costs of pesticide use total approximately eight billion dollars annually. Those hidden costs are hard to quantify, but should be considered when weighing the benefits of natural crop protection against the incumbent synthetics. So while a grower might need to pay $200 per ton for a pest control chemical, that’s just the price, not the total cost.

Social Impact

The idea of ‘social’ impact is broad, but the most common way to think about it is how pesticide use impacts—directly or indirectly—people and adjacent communities. There is direct exposure like we might expect for farm workers that apply the treatment to crops and grain stores, as well as the treatment of livestock with things like anti-parasitics. There’s also broader community impact, for example, people living near farms that might be exposed to pesticide drift. Even in neighborhoods far from active farms, we are exposed to pesticides through the spraying of trees and parks, lawns, sports fields and more. Many of us buy pesticides off the shelf for home and garden use. And of course, pesticide residues can be found on, and in, our food. We know there is a better way.

Needless to say, the size of the market and opportunity is significant. We see a green future—environmentally and economically—in partnering with nature.

Problem-Solving Partnership

We recently announced a collaboration partnering with one of the leaders in agriculture and innovation, FMC Corporation, to take a differentiated approach to this problem. Together, we’re pioneering new methods of scientific discovery in the pursuit of protecting crops from pests with greener, cleaner solutions that will help crops grow better. FMC is deeply committed to R&D and our work together should help expand the types of crop protection solutions available to growers around the world.

FMC has already begun tackling this problem. Last year, they brought to market the first novel mode-of-action herbicide in 30 years. Over that same period, no one had figured out a truly novel way to kill weeds that was commercially viable. We’re excited to see what our two organizations will come up with next.

What will the outcome of our partnership be? It’s too early to tell, but the goal is to use machine learning and our enormous genomic database to find new solutions that until now have not been possible. Scientists can make informed hypotheses and gather the low hanging fruit, i.e., potential products to be used in new generations of pesticides, but there are vast, undiscovered dark corners of the genome that hold tremendous value if unlocked. The opportunity to develop safe, effective natural products to mitigate pests is huge. This is where Zymergen can add real value.

The incentives for us to discover and develop greener and cleaner pesticides go far beyond only economic benefits. By having stronger, and more targeted, solutions via biology, the hope is to use fewer pesticides and lower toxicity pesticides in general. We believe the best solution to reducing pesticide contamination in our environment is to develop safer pest control and weed control methods. Prior solutions were the answer for the 20th century. Our aim is to make the 21st century the era of solutions using biology for agriculture.

Learn more about Zymergen’s work in agriculture here.