Israeli biopesticides gives chemicals a ‘break’

Chemical pesticides aren’t going anywhere, but biopesticides from Israel’s Stockton Group ensure they can be used more safely and effectively, CEO says

Colombia's Lizeth González, the 2011 World Banana Queen, visits the Stockton Group's booth at an agricultural show in Ecuador. (Courtesy)
Colombia's Lizeth González, the 2011 World Banana Queen, visits the Stockton Group's booth at an agricultural show in Ecuador. (Courtesy)

There’s good news and bad news for fans of organic fruits and veggies; the bad news is that mass production of organic produce is highly unlikely, at least in the near future. Biopesticides, the replacement for chemical pesticides in the agriculture production chain and crucial for organic production, just aren’t powerful enough or cheap enough to replace the very effective chemicals currently being used by commercial growers, according to Ziv Tirosh, CEO of Israel’s Stockton Group.

But the good news is that far lower amounts of those chemicals are getting to the consumer’s plate – thanks in large part to Stockton. A powerhouse in the world of biopesticides, Israel’s Stockton Group is one of those huge Israeli success stories few outside their industry have ever heard of. Operating for the past 20 years in 35-plus countries and doing $50 million of business a year, Stockton, which produces chemical pesticides and growth aids for agriculture, has over the past decade become a leader in the biopesticide business.

Stockton is considered such an important player in biopesticides that the company was recently awarded nearly a million euros by the European Union to research a new class of biopesticides, based on triterpenes (oils and acids found in many plants). “We are working as part of a consortium to do this research, and we were the only commercial company selected to work with the universities and research institutions in the program,” said Tirosh.

As a type of pesticide, biopesticides, of course, are supposed to kill bugs, or, preferably, keep them off crops, by using natural, organic methods, instead of chemicals. However, the field is relatively new, and as of now there are no biopesticides strong enough to handle the entire growth cycle. There are various technologies to produce biopesticides, such as using plant extracts to develop organic chemicals that can be applied to plants and crops, along with microbial biopesticides based on using bacteria, fungi and yeast extracted from plants (Stockton uses both, said Tirosh).

There are also genetic-based biopesticide technologies, which Stockton is researching together with its academic partner, the Weizmann Institute of Technology – the only biopesticide company working with that institution.

Though promising, wide-scale, cost-effective production of genetically engineered biopesticides is years away. “A lot more research is needed, and the small start-ups that generally work on these projects don’t have the money or resources needed,” he said. The infrastructure – from the marketing and sales channels to the methods of application – is all geared towards chemical pesticide treatment, so replacing it is a non-starter.

Ziv Tirosh (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Ziv Tirosh (Photo credit: Courtesy)

However, Tirosh said, biopesticides can – and already do, thanks to Stockton – play a crucial role in assisting chemicals do a better job. “If, for example, a cucumber crop will be sprayed ten times, we could replace two or three of those chemical pesticide sprayings with biopesticide sprayings that will have an important impact on the final results.”

Timorex, Stockton’s main product, has been feted not only by the EU, but by industry as well. The company won this year’s Agrow Award (given out by agriculture industry information giant Informa Agra) for the best new biopesticide.

“The statistics on population growth and the need for more food are well known,” he said, pointing to studies that say there will be as many as 8 billion people in the world within 25 years. “Chemical pesticides are by far the most effective way of keeping infestations out of crops and ensuring that there is enough production to feed the world.” As such, he said, biopesticides will not replace chemical pesticides anytime soon. “They just cannot be used as effectively, cheaply, and on as large a scale as chemicals. But in a supporting role, biopesticides can greatly enhance agriculture.”

One clear use case for biopesticides, he said, was towards the end of the growth cycle. When a fruit or vegetable is sprayed with chemical pesticide, some of it is absorbed, but most of it washes away. “Growers are reluctant to use chemicals at that point because they don’t want any residue when they being the crops to market,” Tirosh said. At that point, many farmers prefer an organic solution – like Stockton’s biopesticides – which, if not as effective as chemicals, are still quite effective, and do the job of protecting crops as they make their way to the dinner plate, with fewer chemicals.

“There are use cases for using biopesticides in other parts of the growth process as well,” Tirosh said – for example, replacing one or two of the chemical sprayings just to keep bugs from having access to them and building up a resistance. Thanks to biopesticides, chemical pesticides can have a longer, more effective life cycle in agriculture.

For Tirosh, it’s all about feeding people. Established in 1994, Stockton employs 80 people (30 of them working in R&D in Israel, the rest mostly involved in sales and local product testing). “We’re happy to be doing this work, ensuring that there are fewer chemicals in the food chain and enhancing production to make sure more food gets to more plates,” said Tirosh. “The world needs more food, and we want to do our share to make sure they get it.”

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