Last week, Syngenta hosted its biannual Media Summit in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area and capped off my week in the Tarheel State visiting with leadership at some of the leading crop protection, traits and seed companies in the U.S.
The event included a visit to Syngenta’s recently opened Innovation Center and Crop Lab in Research Triangle Park, a state-of-the-art research facility and greenhouse where they conduct research on corn, soybeans and several other crops. It was impressive, and is just an example of the investment companies like Syngenta put into the development of new traits and products to protect crops.
The effort put into building a greenhouse that can replicate the season-long weather conditions that corn and soybeans generally experience — as well as capture the maximum amount of natural sunlight — was remarkable in the effort to research new products. Add to that the intelligence of the people who painstakingly conduct research in the effort of discovering breakthroughs in crop technology, and you are left in awe of these operations.
Just like the honest, hard-working farmers our editors come across in their work, there are a lot of folks who support their families by trying to come up with technologies that will help farmers be better farmers.
Here are just a few things heard during the event that left an impression on me that you may find interesting.
- The discovery process and the regulatory requirements that come with bringing new products to the ag market remain astounding. “At one time, it cost $100 million to launch a new product. Today, it’s $282 million U.S. on average and it takes 11 years to accomplish that. And that leaves you with just 6 years before your patent expires,” says Jay Bradshaw, president of Syngenta Canada.
- With that type of pressure to bring new products to market and then recoup the investment quickly before the patent expires, we shouldn’t be surprised by the recent mergers announced by Dow and DuPont, and Bayer and Monsanto, says Ponsi Trivisvavet, president of Syngenta Seeds. “The response to lower commodity prices and the longer regulation process we’re experiencing causes companies to ask how much can they can invest in innovation. What can they do to reduce that investment and still have innovation, and one way is to merge with another company,” she says.
- With regards to ChemChina’s planned purchase of Syngenta, Vern Hawkins, president of Syngenta Crop Protection, says: “It is a shareholder purchase and a change of ownership, while the others are mergers. Syngenta will remain Syngenta and part of the arrangement was that the governors on the board would continue to make decisions and run operations as if there was no change.” Trivisvavet adds the ChemChina investment in Syngenta helps them to continue their research and discovery efforts.
- Just like growers are making management decisions based on the data they collect from their farm, Syngenta finds data analytics to be important in bringing new soybean varieties to market and helping growers find the right ones for their farms. “Data analytics is the difference today for companies creating genetics,” says Tracy Doubler, head of Syngenta’s North American Soybean Breeding Projects. “We need tools that are as close as possible to what a Garmin device does. With breeding, we need to replace art with science. We are better able to position the products to where they will perform the best.” Doubler adds that by 2050, Syngenta could double the amount of soybeans grown in the world through yield improvements, just by using data analytics.
- Syngenta expects to launch hybrid wheat by the end of this decade, says Darcy Pawlik, head of Cereals Portfolio. “Hybridization of wheat will give growers more consistent yields and millers more consistent quality,” says Pawlik, adding that combining the best traits of two genetic parent lines will help wheat breeders provide varieties that offer more robust yields with less impact from adverse conditions.
- Agrisure Artesian hybrids designed for water optimization are now contained in about one-third of the corn seed sold by Syngenta, with most of the seed sold into the core Corn Belt. “We’re seeing about a 10% yield advantage in water-stress situations,” says Duane Martin, commercial traits manager. He adds that farmers like the insurance against droughty periods and find they offer yields as good as non-Artesian hybrids when water is not a limiting factor.
- About 40% of the nation’s corn could be going into ethanol plants and two-thirds of that ends up as a feed byproduct. Enogen corn enzyme technology is the first biotech corn output trait available for ethanol production and its new Cellerate will help ethanol plants produce more ethanol from the same kernel of corn, says Chris Tingle, head of marketing for Enogen. “It reduces the viscosity of a plant’s corn mash, so it reduces water inputs and energy usage, and lowers the carbon footprint. Plus, it’s easier on the facility.”
- Syngenta is one of several companies trying to encourage the proliferation of pollinators by asking growers to convert a small amount of acreage to habitat for species like honeybees. No-tillers planting cover crops likely have a way to help that effort without sacrificing any acreage. “September and October is the dearth season for pollinators because you typically don’t have many species active that are important to honeybees, so anything that will flower in the fall like buckwheat or sunflowers in the mix can be helpful. Clovers and legumes can also be good for pollinators,” says Caydee Savinelli, pollinator & IPM stewardship lead.
- Atrazine is going through another re-registration process, and the EPA just released its initial Ecological Risk Assessment. Timothy Pastoor, who retired from Syngenta last year as a principal scientist, says the report had numerous errors. He says the EPA will get it right when it goes through a scientific panel review next year. I asked him if the initial report was worse than the last one that took place about a decade ago, and whether political pressures were at issue. “I think the answer is that the review of atrazine is complex, but it is not complicated,” he said. “This is probably one of the most error-filled risk assessments I’ve ever seen. It is a lot of info they need to pull together and it just felt like they rushed to pull it together.” With more than 7,000 studies that support the registration of atrazine, Pastoor expects approval, but they will need the support of farmers commenting in favor of re-registration.
- The launch of Acuron corn herbicide this past year has given growers a pre-emergence product providing up to 90 days control of some of the toughest weeds farmers are facing today, says Jeff Cecil, head of product management. Bicyclopyrone is the new active ingredient introduced through Acuron, which includes a premix of mesotrione (Callisto), s-metolachlor (Dual Magnum) and atrazine. It offers control of barnyardgrass, foxtail, lambsquarters, Palmer amaranth, velvetleaf, waterhemp, kochia, marestail, cocklebur, morningglory, common and giant ragweed, and Russian thistle.