By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Companies that make bug-killing chemicals and natural remedies are racing to take advantage of restrictions on neonics, a type of insecticide popular with farmers but blamed for harming bees and mayflies.
Global sales of neonicotinoids, or neonics, were $3.01 billion last year, accounting for almost 18 percent of the global insecticides market, according to consultancy Phillips McDougall.
Insecticide sales fell sharply year-over-year, partly because of a 2013 European Union ban on some neonics. The restrictions are expanding in parts of Canada and the United States.
Ontario, Canada's biggest corn-growing province, is phasing in regulations by 2020 that force farmers to prove they have insect problems before using neonics, because of high rates of bee deaths. The Canadian government said last month it would phase out the neonic imidacloprid, made by Bayer AG, because it harms aquatic bugs. That trend opens the door for companies with alternatives, such as Syngenta AG, Dow Chemical and DuPont, as well as smaller companies with cutting-edge biological techniques. Syngenta also makes neonics. Syngenta launched Fortenza, which does not face similar restrictions as neonics, last year in Ontario and is tapping into rising demand. "We were fortunate that Fortenza was registered when it was," spokesman Chris Davison said.
Dow's Isoclast Active controls many of the same pests as neonics, spokeswoman Rachelle Schikorra said. "The Syngentas and Dows of the world certainly have the leg up in this space because they already have distribution channels," said Laura Lee, a Lux Research analyst. "As they develop these solutions, they can push them through the same channels."
Ontario restrictions prompted Monsanto Co to treat less of its Dekalb corn seed with neonics in that market in 2017, and add a line of corn seed coated with DuPont's Lumivia alternative, said spokeswoman Trish Jordan.
Replacing neonics with different chemicals does not please environmentalists.
"My hope is we move away from pesticides and only use them when we absolutely have to," said Faisal Moola, a regional director-general with the David Suzuki Foundation environmental group.
Biological approaches are also available.
Marrone Bio Innovations' Venerate uses compounds harvested from dead bacteria to kill insects.
BioFence vegetable pellets, organic fertilizer made by Agrium unit Triumph Italia, are mixed into soil to strengthen plants against some of the same insects targeted by neonics, Agrium spokesman Richard Downey said. "Hopefully, (the alternatives) will do close to the same job," said Mark Brock, Grain Farmers of Ontario chairman. Some farmers worry the alternatives will not be adequate. France's plan to ban all neonics in 2018 could result in 6 percent lower rapeseed yields, because of insect damage, said Fabien Lagarde, a director at French oilseed technical center Terres Inovia. The ban may end up being delayed until 2020 if an alternative is unavailable. "There's no way we can do without neonicotinoids," Lagarde said. Few alternatives are available for horticulture, whose industries individually are smaller than those of field crops, said Craig Hunter, a manager with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association. "We see no silver bullet. We could be in serious trouble almost overnight."
(Additional reporting by Sybille de la Hamaide in Paris; Editing by Peter Cooney)