2024 Salinas Summit: Uniting for Ag Biologicals’ Future

The 2024 Salinas Biological Summit, co-hosted by Western Growers Association and New Zealand-based agrifoodtech consultancy Wharf42, brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to address the evolving landscape of biological-based products in agriculture. California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross set the tone for the event with a message emphasizing the need for a collaborative, systems-based approach to advance the technology and adoption rates of ag biologicals. “No one sector can do it alone,” she said, highlighting a sentiment echoed throughout the summit.

The event’s discussions spanned a range of topics, from the perennial issues of providing tangible value to farmers and avoiding investment in ineffective products, to newer conversations about integrating biologicals with precision agriculture and AI technologies. Secretary Ross urged attendees to consider a systems approach, stressing the importance of using the right tools at the right place and time.

Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia opened the summit with a candid acknowledgment of the challenges facing the industry. “The fact of the matter is, we’re losing synthetic products at a pretty rapid rate now,” he said. “We’ve got to get around that corner and, instead of complaining about that fact, find solutions. That’s what biologicals represent to us: a huge, looming potential set of solutions that we have to realize.” Puglia pointed out that growers face pressure from buyers, governments, and consumers to reduce synthetic product use, while also contending with limited capital for development. Despite these challenges, he noted that these “colliding forces” have sharpened the industry’s focus.

A recurring theme at the summit was the necessity for biological products to be economically viable for growers. Puglia emphasized, “None of this matters if the economics don’t work for the grower.” This sentiment was echoed by Carl Casale, co-founder of Ospraie Ag Science, who stressed the importance of making products easy to use and seamlessly integrating them into existing farming practices. “If somebody can’t explain to you what you’re buying and how it works, would you really want to buy it?” he asked.

Mark Trimmer of Dunham Trimmer highlighted the need for strategic partnerships with growers, particularly during beta testing phases. Elliot Kellner from the Donald Danforth Plant Center suggested using external farms for initial trials to avoid risking reputations with growers. “If you go out and it’s a flat fail, that grower isn’t going to try it again,” added Vonnie Estes of the International Fresh Produce Association.

The integration of biologicals with other agricultural technologies was another focal point of the summit. John Deere’s Alexey Rostapshov discussed how precision ag tools like the ExactShot and See & Spray systems can reduce the use of fertilizers and herbicides, making the economics of biological solutions more feasible. “When you think about expensive new biological solutions, all of a sudden the economics start to be a little bit more palatable when you’re able to be very precise in an application,” he said.

The regulatory landscape for biologicals also came under scrutiny. Terry Stone from Corteva Agriscience praised Brazil’s efficient regulatory framework, which has enabled rapid product registration. In contrast, the United States faces significant resource constraints, with the EPA having 80 new active ingredients pending registration for biopesticides but only 20 science reviewers. Kellner suggested that agriculture could benefit from processes similar to the FDA’s emergency-use authorizations for pharmaceuticals, which would allow for quicker responses to climate and market pressures.

The summit underscored the collective effort required to advance biologicals in agriculture. As Dr. Marrone noted in her plenary, realism has set in, and the industry must navigate these challenges with a collaborative, systems-based approach.

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