June 24th’s indictment of neonicotinoids by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is by far the most conclusive evidence to date of the widespread destructive effects of this class of pesticide ever published. Based on a four-year analysis, bringing together over 800 peer-reviewed papers, the IUCN has recommended a global phase-out the use of all neonicotinoid and fipronil pesticides ("neonics" for short).
Neonics are a very widely used agricultural pesticide and have been a key suspect in Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (see Chris' blog, Giga Goals For Advanced Materials), the troubling global phenomenon that has seen bee populations plummet by 30-50% across almost all geographies. This led to a two-year ban of neonics by the EU in early 2013 and to the EPA severely restricting their use in the USA earlier this year.
However, the broader damage was not well documented until the publication of the IUCN study. Well beyond bees and other insects, the study highlights the impact of neonics on microbes, earthworms, lizards, birds, snails and even shellfish. When the issue was "only" bees, it was bad enough. But now neonics are strongly implicated as a threat that could potentially lead to a collapse of our entire food chain. Almost all pollinators are affected: Bees, butterflies, flies, and even birds. The only obvious species not mentioned is bats.
Neonics have a half-life of three years in soil, which means that a short-term ban is not enough to show that their disuse results in a reversal of the disturbing trends. The only way to be sure is to ban their use on a long-term basis. However, neonics represent almost one-third of all insecticides in use. An immediate ban would result in skyrocketing food prices, potential food shortages and, in some regions, even starvation. The IUCN's recommended phase-out is the best compromise, balancing the short term need to feed everyone with the long term need to protect the ecosystem.
In the medium term, there is significant promise that 21st century technology will save the day. Biologicals, as I've written about in previous blogs (Biopesticides: The Next Crop of Cleantech Homeruns, Black Spots on the Green Revolution), have a lot of promise to sustainably fill the gap left by banning or phasing-out neonics. Pangaea has invested in both Vestaron Corporation and NewLeaf Symbiotics partially based on this premise.
Biologicals are not the whole picture, however. In fact, an analysis by Vestaron of the market potential of their three technology platforms shows that despite their vast pipeline of biologicals, it has the smallest market potential of the three. The potential for new bio-mimetic synthetics, informed by close study of biologicals and sharing their same benign toxicology profile, dwarfs what can by accomplished by biologicals alone. Why? Economics.
Biologicals can be made scalably in fermentation processes, but fermentation requires sugar, and lots of it. An exception worth mentioning is Calysta, which has developed an industrial biology approach based on methane-eating microbes instead of yeast or e-coli (see Purnesh's gas to liquid technology blog). A well-developed and properly engineered synthetic process can use very low cost input materials, and can provide the same benefits as a biological at a fraction of the cost. This is critical to ensuring adoption by the agricultural industry.
Finally, although Genetically Modified Organisms are a contentious issue, there is great potential to use learnings from biopesticide development to give our plants the ability to defend themselves, without the need to wastefully spray chemicals. This is already done, in fact, with the majority of corn or soy incorporating gene sequences allowing them to arm themselves with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) biopesticide directly. Unfortunately, Bt resistance is emerging among such damaging pests as corn rootworm, and new traits will be necessary to deliver the level of protection that is today supplied by neonics.
So, to address the disruptive implications of a long term neonic ban, there's some good news: There are a broad range of technologies which can address the gap which will appear should the IUCN's recommendation of a phase-out of neonicotinoids become a reality. It appears that these technologies are being commercialized just in time to save our food chain. Timing doesn't get more fortuitous than that!