Changing Planet

Using Pesticides to Grow Organic Crops

Is it possible to grow organic fruits using pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides? That’s the question I took to Pam Marrone, an agricultural researcher in Davis, California.

It turns out it is possible. And Marrone is a person who would know. She worked for some of the bigger names in agriculture technology—Monsanto and AgraQuest—before starting her own research lab, Marrone Bio Innovations. Her market: farmers who are interested in keeping pests off crops in order to maximize the yields of the foods we all buy.

California leads the country in organic fruit and vegetable sales, but the race away from over-processed produce is nationwide. An industry study this year found that the popularity of organic produce has grown nearly 10 percent each year over the last decade, now amounting to a $30 billion chunk of the economy. Organic doesn’t mean untouched. It means that strawberry, for instance, was grown only using compounds available in nature. What Marrone does is find other compounds found elsewhere in nature to help the plant thrive.

Marrone’s lab in a small corner of Davis is unassuming. Marrone herself is anything but. No-nonsense and in a constant state of power-walking, she led me around her lab to show me how bacteria discovered in, say, a Buddhist garden or on a Hawaiian beach (both actually happened) can kill pests or fungi that destroy crops like soybeans, corn, or cucumbers.

Bad things can be used for good purposes, Marrone said. Penicillin, for example, was discovered as a mold before it was harnessed to fight infections. No genetic or chemical engineering is involved in bio-pesticide research, just testing how to naturally kill weeds with organic materials and substances that already exist.

The research is fascinating. In in order to see what materials can kill pests, you have to first fill your labs with closets of scurrying nematodes and aphids. “We breed them to learn how to kill them,” Marrone told me.

In the end, it comes down to preserving more crops for humans, not bugs. “We have seven billion people turning into nine billion people on the planet. We’re going to need to feed them,” Marrone told me.  She was soon on her way to jet off to Germany to talk to other bio-pesticide innovators. “I’ve been interested in this since I was eight years old. I’m driven by the fact that [organic] products can compete with chemicals.”

  • Mick J Rogers

    Very nice story. However you missed an important element. Dr Marrone wasn’t only an employee at AgraQuest, she was the founder and CEO.

    She started MBI after creating two prior successful ag biotech companies: AgraQuest and Novo Nordisk’s Entotech.

  • Lance Quinto

    That is paradoxical! A pesticide can grow an organic crop? But I think that genetic engineering will come on its way because with traditional breeding methods of planting some pesticides are being included in the crops while in the genetic engineered crops they do not pose any danger because not only on the incorporation of pesticides on the crops, but it uses no more energy resources. But the problem in this genetic engineering stage is that some may mutate or may be modified inside a living organism that can truly worse the scenario. But I think as a science advocate, scientists may be able to improve their work on this another breakthrough in science especially in technology that even I don’t read this article, I believe that this would be a successful mission to undertake in later time.

  • David van Hoogstarten

    Are these first rays of sensible organic farming, arising over the horizon?
    While I hope that Pam Marrone is successful, I am wondering what the toxicity is of her bacteria. Are they safer than approved pesticides because they were found in a Buddhist garden or a Hawaiian beach?
    Toxicity is sometimes too much scrutinized. Would wine or parsley (and all other common foods) get the stamp of approval, as safe by EPA?
    Therefore I wish that Pam Marrone succeeds commercially with her project.

  • Brandy Sudyk

    You know how we feed people? By looking at access to healthy food as a human and environmental right. It’s grotesque that animals and produce are now just commodities from which corporations extract profit. They answer to one group above all others: investors and shareholders. Industrial farming is propped up by subsidies designed for export monoculture crops (e.g. corn). Why did we turn to test tubes to figure out the most efficient way of growing food? Because biotech companies wanted to alter genes so they could patent life and strangle resisting farmers whose fields they contaminate. Instead, we need to support farms run by people who care about the land they tend and who are situated close to where the food is being consumed. Also, more support in city planning for urban agriculture. Since when do scientists have all the answers, while farmers are regarded as mere minions in the process? If you want to know how to farm naturally and abundantly, ask the people who’ve developed this craft over thousands of years: farmers.

  • Paraj Shukla

    After reading the title of the article, I thought the author is referring to chemical (synthetic) pesticides, use of which generally is an antithesis of organically produced crops. On the contrary, the term “Pesticides” is used in the article to attract the attention of the readers. All that Dr. Marrone is doing is using “natural products and/or organisms” (naturally occurring chemicals/organisms, extracted/discovered from nature) for countering the pests of the crops – which is widely known and ethnically practiced since ancient past as organic approach to reduce the pest populations on our crops. All the best for their endeavor.

  • Dan Stone

    Great thought, Paraj. The term pesticides wasn’t just to get your attention — although I’m glad it did! Marrone is developing what are known as bio pesticides. The substances are still not native to the farmlands where they’ll be used. But instead of synthetic chemical pesticides, these are naturally occurring on the planet. I was also surprised at the contradiction of pesticides/insectides/fungicides used in organic crops, but it’s absolutely accurate!

  • AC Soundarrajan

    The caption of the article alarming but the content heartening

  • Jonathan Price

    For what its worth, I agree with Paraj. I think you’re a bit confused Dan. These ‘bio-pesticides’ are no different than the OMRI, etc organic certified pesticides/fungicides/herbicides used already and for a little while now. I promise, your title is misleading. But cool to see the research is continuing.

  • Jadsworth

    That’s a wonderful research from marrone, i think it’s an alternative of preventing iminent food shortage in the future.

  • Oneda Zinn

    Great. So now we get to consume pesticides by buying organic. Don’t you get it? Globalists are trying to kill off mankind with genetic engineering poisons directly into our food, our water. Congratulations public if you don’t outcry against this, you get to be the generation who destroyed our future. Don’t you all see? The rise of cancer & disease is from lack of God-given nutrition from natural chemicals in minerals. We are now destroying what nature has been providing for eons by making the giant corporations like Monsanto rich. I guess if we remain silent about this genetic engineering we deserve what we get. Please protest in any way you can by choosing to support local farmers, local produce grown from heirloom seeding….no pesticides. …may God have mercy on our children and grandchildren if we have any at all.

  • Bugman

    I was raised on an “amish” type farm. my dad rotated his crops and the bugs never had a chance to develope. When I went to Illinois with millions of acres of corn (to feed us) the rootworms magnified in to populations that aldrin could not control. When you monocrop forever, NO CHEMICAL OR ORGANIC will ever allow us to grow enough food to feed this exploding population ! ! !

  • Quackademiac

    BT, and sulfur … the most widely used “organic” crop protection products. BT, Bacillus Thuringus can be applied as a spray, and has been introduced to the genomes of many crops. Some of us are highly sensitive to BT, the symptoms easily confuse BT poisoning with strepp throat.. Sulphur has a wide range of adverse health effects on humans, but do the “organic” growers even know this when they lace it on our food to control fungal diseases? Sure they do, and they have absolutely no clue about cumulative effects of either substance. Do they care? Kid yourself some more, they don’t care how many of us suffer, so long as their business remains profitable.

    I’d be interested to know what testing has been done by Marrone to assure the pathogens she’s pushing on our foods are safe.

  • Steve the troublemaker

    Natural pesticides? Just because its found in nature does not mean its safe. Scientists always bring up penicillin but there are hundreds of molds that are dangerous to humans. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that kills humans pretty fast. The flu virus is also naturally occurring in addition to other viruses and bacterias like salmonella, botulism, and listeria. The point that is always ignored is this any bacteria that can kill other bugs and organisms use poisons, their own version of snake venom. Poison is poison for a reason it kills. Granted not all poisons kill everything, differences in species and immunity defense play a part, but human trials are always necessary. Which starts to get into the politics of business and marketing. Take a look at Bt a naturally pesticide now created by Gmo crops like corn to fight off insects. It’s in the corn, no washing it off. All studies in the U.S. are tightly controlled and litigated by Monsanto, but in other countries studies are showing it to be responsible for high levels of tumors in rats, cancer and inflammation of unusual proportions, and many countries are banning it. Which is mostly unknown in this country because of media collusion. Wake up and smell it, does it smell like money or is it my own rotting guts.

  • sue

    Now if we could focus on not going to 9 billion….Is there something we can take for that?

  • Yoshiro Kamamura

    Mosanto? The company that gave us PCB and lied for decades about how it is safe, and now people are getting cancer from it and will continue to for decades to come?

    Right. “Organic” – bogus name with vague promise of health and safety, hijacked by the greedy.

  • AJ

    I’m wonder how “organic” the food remains after these “natural” pesticides. Here, in India, there have been farms that have used Neem (Azadirachta indica A. juss) leaves (boiled in water and filtered) and Neem oil as pesticides. Scientific research has shown that Neem extracts can influence nearly 400 species of insects.

    Read this:
    Neem products work by intervening at several stages of the insect’s life. They may not kill the pest instantaneously but incapacitate it in several ways. Neem very subtly employs effects such as repellence, feeding and ovipositional deterrence, growth inhibition, mating disruption, chemo-sterilization, etc. These are now considered far more desirable than a quick knock-down in integrated pest management programs as they reduce the risk of exposing pests’ natural enemies to poisoned food or starvation.

    So rather than wasting time on conducting such research, it’s better to cultivate Neem trees and use them for such purposes. And the plus point, they also clean the air in the surrounding.

  • Major Lipton

    Neem based products are OK. But the work Marrone does is necessary and needs to be done. We can not depent on one set of solutions and we need an array of alternative organic pesticides. Understaing their nature and contribution is a scientific endevor and should not be underestimated. People benefit along the line, but always tell what scientist should do. People who critize should become scientist and show them they are better than those who do research. This lady deserves our thanks,

  • mary

    Another spokesperson for capitalizing on sickness& jeneside chemicals=not organic .(period)

  • mary

    Do we except the study of a person that has worked for big chemical company’s that use the mass of the public as gunny pigs&the land resources as garbage dumps &who also defends the use of chemicals to be our authority on making so called safe compounds to put on our edibles?

  • A Meyer

    Reminds me of the story of the ‘Emporer and His New Clothes’. If people in ‘high’ positions say it is so… it must be so.
    Or not.

  • Hira Husain

    Irrespective of the studies that taught us the demerits of pesticides and the sublerge amast of the defects and cancer caused services and the yes, its a fat that using Pesticides will leads to numerous disadvantages in many spheres of human life. Pesticides are detrimental for the environment and produce considerable damage to ecosystems and yes will share with you some tips..

    Consume food grown in ecologically favorable conditions.
    It is good to wash and peel fruit and vegetables.
    Grow your own food.
    Do not consume only raw vegetables, but cook them.
    Meat must be cooked carefully.
    Avoid fat foods and trim fat from meat because some pesticides can accumulate in fat tissue.
    Avoid areas sprayed with pesticides.
    Those who are exposed to pesticides professionally must use proper protective measures.

    Consider organic pesticides for your Live Plants

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