ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new organic pesticide developed at New Mexico State University is being tested this spring in California’s Salinas Valley, where some of the world’s biggest organic commercial growers are based.
If the tests show the product, called NMX, is successful in killing fungal and bacterial infections, it could find a ready market in California and beyond, particularly among growers of leafy vegetables, which today have very few natural pesticides to protect their crops, said Luke Smith, an NMSU graduate and head of EcoSeal, the new company working to market NMX.
“There are very few effective organic fungicides, especially for leafy produce like lettuce and spinach,” Smith said. “That’s a big problem in the Salinas Valley, where leafy vegetables account for about 50 percent of all crops. Growers there are losing up to 70 percent of their produce because they have no effective fungicides.”
NMX may also prove effective as a repellent against some insects.
NMSU Microbiologist Geoffrey Smith developed NMX with a team of three researchers, who found that a mixture of essential oils from common desert plants can help defend against fungus, bacteria, nematodes and some insects, such as thrips. Individual components in the essential oils have been used before as pesticides, but the NMSU team found that keeping all the elements together in the essential oils had a synergistic effect that is much more powerful.
The product has been tested in laboratory, greenhouse and field trials in the U.S. and Mexico on a variety of plants, including tomatoes, chile, bell peppers onions and turfgrass.
“We expected the pure chemical in essential oil would water down its effect, but we found that the natural oil was more potent than using refined active ingredients,” Geoffrey Smith said. “Tests showed it had a synergistic effect in potency as an all-natural product.”
The plants and components used in NMX, which has a provisional patent, are proprietary. EcoSeal, which Luke Smith formed in 2015, is now seeking Environmental Protection Agency approval for NMX as a commercial organic pesticide.
EcoSeal has gotten a big boost from NMSU’s Arrowhead Center Inc., which manages all of the university’s technology transfer and entrepreneurship programs.
Arrowhead initially provided $15,000 for EcoSeal through its Launch Proof of Concept program, which helps move new NMSU technologies to market. In addition, NMSU provided $35,000 in technical aid through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program – a state initiative that offers financing for entrepreneurs to access technical resources at NMSU, the University of New Mexico and the state’s two national laboratories.
Arrowhead also helped EcoSeal obtain a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program, set up in 2011 to help move new discoveries generated by NSF research grants from lab to market.
And, in March, EcoSeal won another $50,000 grant from the New Mexico Technology Research Collaborative, a state-backed organization that unites New Mexico’s research institutions in a joint effort to accelerate commercialization of homegrown technologies.
The TRC received $400,000 from the state Legislature last year, $300,000 of which was earmarked by the Economic Development Department for targeted commercialization projects. EcoSeal was one of six companies to receive funding in February, said Patricia Knighten, former director of EDD’s Office of Science and Technology.
“EcoSeal was one of 18 project proposals, but it rose to the top,” Knighten said. “They’ve been partnering with big agricultural operators in California and they’re in a sweet spot for rapid growth in the high-value, organic crop market.”
The TRC grant is helping pay for field testing this spring in the Salinas Valley and at NMSU.
“We set up fungal testing with an agricultural research firm in California to provide an independent study for the EPA approval process,” Luke Smith said. “We’re also doing more field tests here with NMSU entomologists to look at effectiveness against insects and bacteria, in addition to fungus. The tests began in March and we expect results back by June.”
To start, EcoSeal is prioritizing NMX as a fungicide. That’s because previous testing in Las Cruces and Mexico showed that, as an insecticide, NMX performed about equivalent to other organic pesticides currently on the market. But, as a fungicide, it demonstrated impressive results.
“The tests showed very, very strong efficacy against fungus, rivaling synthetic pesticides,” Smith said.
In addition, interviews with agricultural producers, chemical company representatives and pest control consultants throughout California and other western states indicated little enthusiasm for NMX as an insecticide. But growers showed strong interest in its potential as a fungicide.
Once the Salinas Valley tests are in, EcoSeal will seek private funding to finish the EPA approval process and begin marketing.
“We’re almost ready,” Smith said. “We’ve identified market potential and customers. People are saying they will buy it if it works and, after June, we expect it to be independently validated in our field studies.”
As a professor and scientist, Geoffrey Smith said he’s excited to see NMX gaining traction. The original research contributed to the professional development of students who worked on creating it and the product may now help growers in the real world.
“It’s a win-win,” Geoffrey said. “It added to the professional accomplishments of NMSU students, and it’s gratifying to see basic laboratory research find a direct application in society by helping to produce cleaner fruits and vegetables.”