Seed World recently attended Bayer CropScience’s 2013 Ag Issues Forum, a major gathering of industry thought leaders and stakeholders examining key issues and trends in agriculture today. In this special edition of Cross Pollination, speaker highlights explore honey bee health, advances in biotechnology, definitions of sustainability, industry challenges and opportunities, consolidation in agriculture and other significant issues.
Dawn of a New Era
“We live in a fantastic era. It’s a new era of biological understanding. Biotechnology driven by all the ‘omics’—genomics, proteomics, metabolomics—gives us the opportunity to deliver whole new series of differentiated products in crop science.
“In the past, we used to get excited about sequencing the human genome. It was a fantastic effort sequencing the human genome. It cost more than three billion euros to generate the first human genome and it took a decade to complete that project.
“The human genome can now be sequenced in a few days. It costs four to five thousand euros … and it’s going to get cheaper. … The fact that investment was made in human science means that we can take that same technology and apply it in crop science. We can now sequence the genome of microbes, of fungi, of plants, of whatever we want to sequence, and to start to understand resistance to crop protection products … We can start to truly understand the relationship between genotype and phenotype. We start to have the computing power to handle all the data that ‘omics’ technology delivers—and to take that information, that genome sequence, and turn it into real knowledge.
“We know how to play with genomes in order to come up with differentiated solutions. These new technologies allow us to start to understand how climate affects crops, how nutrient supply affects phenotype, how plants respond to abiotic stress.
“So the classical approach, where you looked at cause and effect without understanding the relationship between them, is slowly disappearing. We are starting to understand that bridge.”
—David Nicholson, head of research and development, Bayer CropScience
Trends, Challenges and Opportunities
• Pest resistance—“This is a daunting challenge, and one we hear about each and every day. About 61 million acres are infested with resistance. Fortunately, we’re sitting in a pretty good spot in that we’ve got a great portfolio of products that help farmers fight resistance. Nevertheless, this is a trend that’s here and it’s here to stay, and we have to be more active in finding new ingredients to enable farmers to overcome this.”
• Regulatory hurdles—“Time lines are lengthening, costs are increasing.”
• Traceability and sustainable solutions—“We believe there is going to come a day when a consumer can walk into a grocery store, pick out his/her produce, scan it and it’s going to tell that person where that product was grown, what products were used on it, and whether or not it’s something that satisfies what they’re looking for. We want to be a leader in this landscape. We want to help create that transparency—help create a traceable solution—so that consumers are more informed.”
• Personnel pinch—“Our industry is facing a significant labor squeeze. Many of the people we work with, the distributors, the retailers and the farmers that we talk to, are all facing this issue and are asking us to help them overcome this challenge. We’re having to look at new sources of people to come into our workforce; we’re going to non-traditional universities, non-traditional ag sources to find talent.”
• Consolidation—“The last point from a trend standpoint that we see is a great deal of consolidation—consolidation across the industry starting at the supplier level, but really showing itself at the distribution, retail and farm level.
“As we think about the grower of the future—and we’ve spent an awful lot of time trying to get into the mind of the farmer of the future—we see a generational transformation. The average age of the farmer is about 58 years old. That hasn’t changed a whole lot over the course of the last few years, but what we do find is there’s not a lot of new people going into agriculture and we believe this is going to create a consolidation opportunity.
“Farmers are growing and as they grow their sophistication grows. When we think of the farmer of the future we see a grower as the CEO. We see a person that’s making decisions based on the return on investment not as much as perhaps in the past where it might have been a lifestyle choice or a relationship choice.
“Farmers are seeking technology—rapid technology expansion in order to enable scale or in order to enable efficiency—and we want to be a part of that. They are seeking expertise to make close to real-time business decisions. One of the things we find is farmers are swimming in data. The advent of precision ag really gave farmers the chance to have all kinds of data at their disposal, yet nobody’s really the enabler to translate that data into decision-making tools. We want to be a participant in moving precision to decision in the agricultural space.
“Finally we believe farmers are going to seek tailor-made, whole-farm solutions. No longer do they want to buy from six or eight suppliers, they want to buy from one or two, and more importantly they want experts to help them really take a cropping system and provide a solution that really goes across that entire acre. … So as we think about our role, our mission at Bayer CropScience is to propel farming’s future. I invite to look at this not as a slogan, not as some fancy set of words, but more importantly what we believe our mission is. We believe the challenges are here, they’re here to stay, but the opportunity is really rich. The innovators can really help farmers satisfy the growing demand that exists in agriculture.”
—David Hollinrake, vice president of agricultural commercial operations marketing, Bayer CropScience
“If seed is the potential for what yield may be, then it is data which ensures that yield is optimized and realized. … We must find the next revolution in productivity. And that revolution will be a science-based revolution. But a science-based revolution that is empowered by data and analytics allowing us to better identify what that revolution will be, when it will come and what regulatory challenges it will have.”
—Rich Kottmeyer, senior executive and global agriculture and food production leader, Accenture.
Sustainability: It’s the Journey
“Sustainability is such a loaded term. … For us at Walmart, our business model is to save people money so that they can live better. Sustainability is a key business driver of that concept—saving money so that people can live better. When we look after sustainability, and we’ve done this across our business, in our operations and in our supply chain, we have found that it helps us find opportunities for efficiency, better manages our risk, and creates better partnerships and relationships with key business partners. … Sustainability is really a journey, not a destination.”
—Rob Kaplan, senior manager of sustainability for Walmart Stores Inc.
Banking on Sustainability
“Simplistically, I think about [sustainability] like a bank account. You put your principal in the bank and you live off of the interest—you’re not digging into your principal. So we’re thinking about soil, we’re thinking about water, we’re thinking about the resources farmers have. We’re preserving those or making those better … More important to me is what people use sustainability not to mean. … In general society, it tends to be an exclusionary term. It really ruffles me when I hear people say, ‘corn production is not sustainable, conventional agriculture is not sustainable’ … there are many ways to reach those goals that we’re talking about, but precluding a certain process or certain way is not an answer.”
—Rick Tolman, CEO, National Corn Growers’ Association
Open for Business
“The days have gone when an individual company could do everything. Bayer, as an organization, spends … three billion euros a year on R&D. That’s not [Bayer CropScience], that’s total Bayer. That three billion euros is about one percent of the cash that organizations around the world spend on life sciences each year, so you can say simply 99 percent of life sciences is done outside the walls of Bayer.
We need to interact with the best of the rest. We need to interact with those scientists working in the external world. We’re determined to do that, so we’re now looking to outsource more of our activities—to set up more partnerships and collaborations with academia, with biotech, with other companies around the world. We want to develop a world-class external network.”
—David Nicholson, head of research and development, Bayer CropScience
The Human Touch
“We cannot lead with science. … I’m a huge proponent of science, but agriculture fails every single time—as study after study after study has shown—when we lead with science and research instead of connecting as human beings. … We have incredible connections to make at the center of the plate if we choose to. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that biotechnology labeling is a case study of what will go wrong over the next two years in labeling if we don’t get out ahead of it. If you want a case on why I think that, take a look at gestation stalls and rBST—and it’s tracking just about the same.”
—Michele Payn-Knoper, principal, Cause Matters Corp.
Colony Collapse Complexity
“Not all colony deaths are colony collapse disorder. … Colony collapse disorder is a specific phenomenon. … Consensus is building that there is no one factor that can account for what is going on with colony collapse disorder. It’s a complex set of stressors on the honey bee that are working together to damage [bee] health and to cause these losses that we’re seeing.”
—David Epstein, entomologist, USDA Office of Pest Management Policy
Take Back Ag’s Brand
“Why “frenemies” when I’m talking to a bunch of agriculture producers? A [frenemy is] a relationship that is both mutually beneficial or dependent, while fraught with mistrust. I would suggest that defines the relationship we have with consumers today. They want to appreciate agriculture. They are connected to agriculture, particularly in this country because we started as an agrarian society, but they just don’t know how and where those connections exist. … We’ve got to really get out there and look for the aggressive opportunity to take back ag’s brand.”
—Lorna Christie, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Produce Marketing Association
Factors Affecting Bee Health
“What are the main problems beekeepers are putting up with right now? … You start out with the bacteria that affects the bees [and] you’ve got the viruses that come along. A lot of the viruses we hadn’t detected until the last two to three years [and we’ve detected those] mainly because we’ve spent about 40 million dollars on research with honey bees because of colony collapse. Honey bees have been studied more in the last six years than they’ve been studied in the last five or six hundred years. The other insects [that affect bee health are] the small hive beetle, … varroa mites, tracheal mites, yeast and fungi … that makes a whole hive collapse down.”
—David Westervelt, assistant chief, Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspection