"A revolution is going on quietly behind the scenes," said Syngenta global head of asset management Rob Neil. "We are seeing a whole new generation of products that are within range of their chemical equivalents, but they are not quite there yet."
The agrichemicals giant's relatively recent interest in the sector "is driven by the regulatory environment", he added. "It takes 10 years and around $150m to approve a new product, then there is the divergence in compliance regimes. Bio-pesticides are an attractive alternative, but here too the regulations will get more demanding."
Marrone Bio Innovations founder and chief executive officer Pam Marrone said: "We can get a product to market much more quickly and cheaply - around $5m-$10m - than with a conventional product. Yet we can elevate bio-pesticides to being as effective as conventional products." She added that her firm's contact microbial insecticide Venerate will be "as potent as the most active insecticide chemistry".
Marcus Meadows-Smith, head of strategy and business management at Bayer CropScience, which bought out biocontrols specialist AgraQuest earlier this year, values the market at $6bn-$7bn. The firm will divide its research and development spend equally between chemicals and "seeds and biologics", he said. "We will be agnostic as to where solutions come from."
Bill Stoneman, executive director of the Biopesticide Industry Alliance (BPIA), which represents the sector in North America, added: "Most of our products are used alongside traditional plant-protection products. Less than six per cent of our sales are for stand-alone use."
Fresh produce accounts for roughly three-quarters of the biocontrol market, which is growing by 10 per cent a year, according to the BPIA's European equivalent, the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association.
Regalia - Bio-fungicide helps lettuce crops
Research has shown that the bio-fungicide Regalia can improve the effectiveness of conventional herbicides, according to Marrone Bio Innovations founder Pam Marrone.
Tests on field-grown lettuce have shown that while downy mildew affected around 50 per cent of heads treated with a conventional product, Regalia has reduced this to around 20 per cent.
It has also been shown to enhance the effect of conventional fungicides in preventing powdery mildew in Chardonnay grapes, she added.