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.”