Polished & Professional

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This seed industry has become a global force, with more technological advances and a higher level of professionalism than ever before.

The continued globalization of the industry means the movement of seed remains a top priority, while increased professionalism and a focus on ancillary services that help seed companies stand out from the pack are two dominant factors at the domestic level.

“I think the key issues are all really about the free movement of seed,” says Bryan Gerard, president and co-owner of Gerard Seed Solutions, this spring at the International Seed Federation’s annual meeting. “If you look at the ISF phytosanitary section and the work that they are just starting, a lot of headway will be made during the next year. There is no doubt that’s where a lot of energy is going to be.”

Julie Mcnabb, editor

Julie Mcnabb
Managing editor of Seed World from 2007 to 2012, McNabb is familiar with the intricacies of the seed industry. She has a passion for getting the story right and a competitive spirit that allowed her to thrive in the world of publishing and communications.

In fact, Gerard feels a move from domestic to international thinking is one of the biggest changes the seed industry has undergone in the past decade. “As I look back to 2007, the seed industry had been pretty set in the way that it had done things,” he says. “Most everything was still domestic. Now you really have to have a global perspective because even if your business is domestic, global aspects are going to impact it.”

These impacts might come from within the seed industry or they could be from outside the industry — government relations, conflicts and wars.

“I think the key issues are all really about the free movement of seed.”

— Bryan Gerard

Gerard says having a willingness and an understanding that you need to look beyond U.S. borders is a very important skill set for the seed industry.

Around the Globe

As the seed industry becomes increasingly global, certain markets are front of center, perhaps none more so than China.

“China is looking for self sufficiency and agriculture is at the very top of its government priorities,” says Pierre Cohadon, territory head for Syngenta China. “As a European working in the country where agriculture is a top priority, you feel great. There aren’t that many countries where agriculture is that important.”

As a result, the seed industry in China is quickly advancing.

“Working with the Chinese authorities is very straightforward,”  Cohadon says. “They want a win-win situation. Basically, they have a huge market and, in the meantime, they are interested in some of our technologies and our abilities. ‘You can transfer technologies and know how to us, and then you will access our market.’ It’s pretty straightforward.”

However, Cohadon says the seed industry in China still faces challenges. “A big part of the market is in the hands of very small generic companies — thousands of them,” he explains. “Counterfeit is not just for luxury goods. You have a lot of counterfeit seeds and a lot of counterfeit crop protection products.

“But this is quickly improving because China is becoming the No. 1 economy in the world. Their authorities clearly understand that protection of the environment, intellectual property and so on are a must. Things are moving very fast here, like most things in this country, and I’m very confident for the future.”

That includes the increased use of genetically-modified seeds in China. “Chinese authorities are extremely pragmatic, but they are also extremely sensitive to the public opinion,” Cohadon says. “On one side, they realize that GM crops are a very efficient tool to increase crop productivity, and they need them for ensuring self sufficiency for the country. On the other side, they realize that public opinion deserves explanations and education, which takes time.

Cohadon is absolutely confident that he’ll see more GM crops in China — probably towards the end of the decade.”

Movement of Seed

No other example quite highlights the importance of the free movement of seed as this year’s trade issue involving China and Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera trait. Agrisure Viptera, which protects against corn borer and above ground pests, was registered in the United States in 2010 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The minute it was registered, we submitted for an import approval in China,” Cohadon shares. Four years have passed and although this trait has now been authorized for import in all key countries including Japan and the European Union, this is still pending in China.

“We have done everything we can do,” Cohadon says. “We have responded in a timely manner to the  requests of authorities, and I firmly believe that this will get solved as soon as possible. We are quite hopeful that the minister will sign this approval.”

According to Cohadon, this issue goes far beyond Syngenta. “This is an industry issue that involves seed companies, grain traders, growers and regulatory authorities,” he says. “The problem is: If you cannot submit an import approval in China until the trait is registered in the country of origin, and it takes two years for the Chinese authorities to grant this approval, by definition you will automatically have two seasons during which your trait will not be registered for importation in China.

“Therefore, the alignment of the regulatory authority system is a must. It’s what we must work for and all of us — not just Syngenta.”

More Than Seed

More and more ancillary services are cropping up across the industry that help seed companies offer their customers something more. In fact, two of this year’s Giants work in this area — Marty Turner of STEP, which provides customized stewardship education programs to the agriculture industry, and Gerard’s Gerard Seed Solutions, which provides various project and consulting services.

“When we started Gerard Seed Solutions, we thought it would be more of a consulting business,” Gerard shares. “It’s really become a project business where companies have brought us on to look at different projects and maybe to execute a project. All of it was tied to expanding their brand or expanding their footprint.

“The alignment of the regulatory authority system is a must.”

— Pierre Cohadon

“Our independence allows us to be very nonbiased. It allows us to give a full industry perspective, and the customer has a lot of confidence and trust on where it’s coming from.”

Turner, meanwhile, is focusing on one area important to the seed industry: stewardship and compliance. “STEP was spurred from the need and opportunity of seeing all these new technologies from seed companies coming up, and the need to educate folks further on the new requirements,” he says. “It stemmed from all the integrated refuge management requirements, intellectual property and so on.”

In addition to using these ancillary services, companies are also expanding their own services, either by acquisitions or new platforms, to become more of a one-stop shop for farmers. This is especially prevalent in the seed enhancement sector.

“BASF’s acquisition of Becker Underwood has really brought a new element to our portfolio,” says Neil Bentley, director of marketing, U.S. Crop for BASF. “Now, we’re able to offer growers solutions that start with planting that seed.

“Previously we started a little bit later in our portfolio; we started by talking with farmers about weed control. Today, we can go out with farmers and really talk about from the time they plant all the way until they harvest.”

Customer Focused

BASF has taken it one step further, offering risk mitigation solutions to farmers, as well. “We are committed to helping growers get the most from every acre,” Bentley says. “One of those key components is our Advantage Suite, which includes our Investment Advantage.

“The key element around our Advantage Suite is helping farmers plan early. When we plan early together with farmers, we believe we have a higher chance of success. And when we plan together with farmers, we’re also willing, in the case of Investment Advantage, to also take on a little of that risk in case commodity prices were to go down throughout the season.”

Meanwhile INCOTEC is also expanding its technology portfolio. “We get products from different sources, and we as a company apply them and make sure they go on the seed, that they work, and that they ensure the safety of the seeds and the germination stays intact, and so on,” says JanWillem Breukink, senior executive member of the board for INCOTEC Group BV. “This is a platform that makes INCOTEC quite unique because we are an independent company and offering it to the whole industry.

“We can combine products coming from different sources. For growers, that means we can help them get optimal combinations of additives to apply to those seeds. In that respect, I am very positive and there are a few examples of exciting products coming on the market now that can help growers get a better yield out of their crop.”

27
products launched by BASF from 2000 to 2012.
200
million farms exist today in China.
1,500
farms visited each year by STEP to help educate farmers about product stewardship.

Optimism Prevails

Despite the globalization of the industry, here on U.S. soil, the small regional seed companies have never felt more optimism than right now.

“To me the message is a really simple one,” says Greg Ruehle, CEO of the Independent Professional Seed Association. “The industry, viewed broadly … views regional independent seed companies as very viable players in the seed industry.

“They want to be part of it. There is a tremendous amount of optimism and that optimism is across the seed industry. Certainly, these folks [ancillary businesses] are optimistic about some things they can do with regional seed companies.”

Ruehle says the biggest change that prompted this renewed interest in the small, regional seed companies is the increased level of professionalism and the desire to deliver high-quality products in a high-touch environment.

“We have fewer members, and there are fewer seed brands out there today then there were eight, 12 and 15 and 20 years ago,” Ruehle says. “Everyone knows that; it’s a fact. But the folks who remain are anxious to be in the business.

“They are anxious to get up every day and go meet the customer at their point of need, and that’s what gets me excited. Independent seed companies want to establish that level of professionalism that really delivers customer service to their growers in a way that they aren’t going to get any place else.”

As technology continues to pick up pace in the industry, the most successful companies — big and small — will be the ones that offer a highly professional service to help farmers wade through the product pool.

“Increased technology creates more options for farmers to sift through,” Bentley says, adding that there is an ever-growing pool of options for farmers to choose from and decisions that need to be made. “And those decisions are becoming much more impactful, in terms of the financial impact.

“The value of risk today for a corn or soybean farmer is two and three times more than it was in the year 2000. While there are more options, and technology is really advancing at a fast pace, it’s up to us to create simple solutions for farmers.”

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