AgraQuest Inc., Davis, Calif., has quietly become a player in the development of pesticides based on beneficial microbes.

Unlike most conventional pesticides that are manufactured using petroleum-based chemicals or synthetic chemicals, the AgraQuest products are produced from renewable, bio-based materials, said Sarah Reiter, director of global marketing.

The company is not campaigning, however, for the elimination of agricultural chemicals.

“AgraQuest doesn’t advocate a world where biopesticides stand alone,” Reiter said. “We’d just like to see the older, dangerous chemistries replaced.”

Research and technological advances in recent years have made for “really effective and safe conventional chemicals when they are applied properly,” she said.

To produce products that compliment conventional chemicals, AgraQuest has a staff of 50 scientists developing the next generation of biopesticides.

“In the 15 years that our company has existed, we’ve spent about $130 million in developing our R&D capabilities,” Reiter said. “We’re one of the few companies doing basic research and development in biopesticides.”

The research ranges from plant pathology and entomology to genomics, she said.

The goal of AgraQuest is to help growers meet the sustainability demands of retailers. Every company seems to decide what sustainability means, Reiter said.

“Helping growers stay in business is at the crux of sustainability,” she said. “We like to give growers a set of tools that gives them no less disease or insect control, sometimes increases yields and allows them to meet their customers’ expectations.”

AgraQuest’s efforts are not wholly altruistic.

“We think biopesticides are sort of the next wave,” Reiter said. “We think the biopesticides industry could have a chance for additional opportunities up to $10 billion to $12 billion annually in the crop protection world.”

Among AgraQuest’s biopesticide tools is Serenade Soil, a just-released soil fungicide that is based on a patented bacterial strain, an active ingredient that combats parasites in potato, tomato, carrot and cucumber fields.

A major advantage of biopesticides is that they are exempt from residue tolerances.

“Even when applied late in the season, growers don’t have to worry about pesticide residues,” Reiter said. “That’s very important for commodities that are exported.”

The biopesticides also provide increased worker safety, she said.

AgraQuest’s products are sold in 26 countries, a figure that could soon increase, because the company is awaiting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval for use of the biopesticides on onions, beans and a few other commodities, Reiter said.

What could be a major breakthrough for California’s strawberry industry may come late this year. AgraQuest has begun evaluating Serenade Soil on strawberry test fields to determine whether it behaves as it does in the already approved crops.

The product would not have the weed seed-killing attributes of the fumigants methyl bromide or methyl iodide, but would offer protection from parasites and fungi, Reiter said.

“For organic growers, it would be a very nice tool, and because of the fumigant setback rules for conventional strawberry growers, it could be a tool that they may use to control those soil diseases that have them considering switching to other crops,” she said.

Results of the evaluations are expected to be compiled in the late fall. If the results are positive, AgraQuest could ask for the label to be expanded to strawberries, Reiter said, because Serenade Soil is already registered with the EPA and California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“There’s a chance — if all the field results work out in our favor and the product performs as we hope — we could have it available in time for use in 2012,” she said. “It’s an exciting time in biopesticides.”