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Emerging issues in agriculture can be met with innovation

4:58 PM MDT | April 28, 2014 | —Rebecca Coons

Searching for new compounds: Bayer CropScience employee tests fungal growth in a fermenter.

New technologies; an integrated approach to crop management; and harmonized, science-based regulatory regimes are necessary to help the agricultural industry meet the daunting task of feeding the world’s fast-growing and increasingly middle-class population, according to James Blome, president and CEO of BayerCropscience.

“The world is changing—and at a very rapid pace—and there are a lot of issues affecting food production,” Blome said at a recent Société de Chimie Industrielle meeting at New York City. “We definitely have the ability to feed 7 billion people. That’s good, because that’s about how many people we have here today,” he adds. “And yet, one in eight goes undernourished every day.”

There are numerous contributing factors, including logistics, poverty, and politics, to feeding the current population—and the situation will only get more difficult, since the global population and middle class are forecast to expand significantly. “Every day, 228,000 people—mouths to feed—join us on earth,” Blome says. “If that is the trend going forward, that will end up to about 9.6 billion people by 2050. And, as that population grows, we find that it gets wealthier,” moving from vegetative diets to increasing meat consumption. “Per capita farm land in the 1950s was almost 1.25 acre for every mouth to feed,” Blome said. “By 2050, when we have 9.6 billion people, we will be down to.37. We’re losing some farmland to construction and development, but, quite frankly, we’re [shrinking] the denominator here, and that is resulting in having to grow more food on less land with less resources. Without technology, there will be a problem.”

As pressure to produce more food on less land is increasing, so are headwinds facing the agricultural industry.

The industry must more effectively respond to concerns about genetically modified organinisms (GMOs). Consumer demand for transparency is also creating challenges. “In 2013, half of the states in the US had bills presented talking about GMO labeling or limiting GMO food in those states. Three states passed legislation: Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine,” Blome says. “We have been using genetically modified corn and soybean in the US since 1995. We don’t see an issue about labeling it, but we’re concerned” about the logistical challenges different state laws could place on food distribution.

Blome would also like harmonized registration for crop protection products. “As an innovation company, when we start our patents and we start registrations, those are the investment patterns that we are planning on and expecting, and [if] one country holds us up—specifically if it takes imports from US—we have issues and have to hold that technology off the market. “Quite frankly, we are looking for a stable environment that will be critical for our investments.”

He adds that it takes about 7-10 years to get a product on the market, and significant testing is done over that time to ensure that the product is safe for the environment and target crops. Blome notes, however, that the European Commission instituted a two-year moratorium on one of its products, a neonicotinoiod pesticide, after allegations that it is to blame for the decline in honeybee populations. “There was a lot of public emotion raised around the issue.... We can’t have registrations and regulations based on emotion,” Blome says.

New technologies, like precision farming, will also help meet the global food production challenge, Blome says. GPS on tractors and soil mapping are helping farmers allocate fertilizer and seeds properly to maximize productivity in every part of the field and measure the result during the harvest. “When harvesting, the farmer knows exactly what was put into that part of the field and exactly what he got out of it,” he adds.

Biologicals will also play an important role in the future of ag, Blome says. In 2012, Bayer has bought biological pest management solutions firm AgraQuest for $425 million. Blome says the company is “truly at the frontier” of using biologicals. “It’s not unlike our biotechnology business, where we find biologically active organisms in the environment,... isolate them, [and] put them into the germplasm of seeds that gets expressed when the plant grows,” he says. “We also do the same thing in biologics, where we find highly active biologically occurring organisms, isolate them, ferment them, and often spray them as a foliar treatment on plants. We think that is the future of the industry.”

The emerging areas of seeds and traits and biologicals are additive to traditional crop protection, Blome says. “We are still investing in all three heavily because we believe in an integrated system or solution to the crop. That way you can manage resistance and other issues that come up by having the total package.”

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