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Embracing cutting-edge ag technologies 'a necessity, not a luxury'

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Agricultural yields are increasing – the record world grains harvest, most lately boosted by all-time high Australian barley and wheat production, attests to that.

But are they rising fast enough?

Dr David Jones is worried that relentless demand growth, rising by 1.5-2% a year for the big crops, is still more than agricultural production can cope with.

At least, without a bit of help to farmers from the products offers by a new wave of businesses such as crop enhancement groups - such as Plant Impact, of which he is chairman - or big data providers or precision agriculture operators.

Replace, not enhance

Sure, the big players such as BASF, Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta, where Mr Jones was head of business development from 2000-07, have plenty of products to aim at the issue. Array

2011- : chairman, Plant Impact

2008-10: chairman, Arysta Life Science,

2000–07: head of business development, Syngenta

2000–03: led merger and integration of Zeneca Agrochemicals and Novartis

1997–2000: regional director, Asia, Africa and Australia, Zeneca Agrochemicals

1992–97: chairman, Zeneca China

1999–92: business manager, Zeneca Europe

The first is that many of these products are aimed as a substitute for sprays deemed unsuitable for reasons such as environmental concerns, rather than efficacy.

"Rather than producing yield increases, these are replacement technologies," Mr Jones tells Agrimoney.com.

"Big research is being undertaken to find replacement products in areas such as fungicides and insecticides," rather than in spurring "technical efficiency, and the kind of big yield improvements which the likes of the US saw up to this century".

Such comments may find an echo, for instance, with European Union rapeseed farmers, barred from using neonicotinoid insecticides over worries of damage to – invaluable - bee populations, whose protection has come at the expense of rapeseed yields.

In the UK, where flea beetle infestations on rapeseed are particularly injurious, farmers have cut sowings of the oilseed to a 13-year low.

Chemicals vs GMOs

The second challenge is the focus by the big farm seed and spray companies on genetically modified crops, a technology which Mr Jones says, while representing a "brilliant piece of science", has not lived up to many of the expectations claimed of it.

"GMOs took over from chemical sprays. But by and large they not matched them in increasing yields."

"A lot of funding is going to replace something which is beginning to fade in performance, or extends herbicide tolerance because weeds have become resistant to glyphosate" - which many of the current biotech seeds are engineered to be impervious to, to allow weeds to be sprayed off without damaging crops.

"A lot of effort is in essence going into making sure we stand still, or go forward slowly."

'Still around the corner'

Considerable funding it is too, with Mr Jones estimating that the big six crop input giants spend roughly half of their research and development budgets on GM technology, which provides roughly 25-33% of turnover.

Yet genetically modified crops are not achieving much of what was initially claimed for them, including for example the development of so-called "output traits", offering exotic outputs from crop production – say, engineering corn to make plastics.

"What was around the corner in 2000 is still around the corner."

'We could increase yields dramatically'

Gene editing - which works on enhancing the genetic material within a species, as opposed to the more ambitious technology involved in GM – offers one potential route for the next stage of yield enhancement.

The big 6 ag input groups, by ag sector sales

1: Monsanto, $19bn

2: Syngenta, $14bn

3: Bayer, $12bn

4: DuPont, $11bn

5=: Dow, $7bn

5=: BASF, %7bn

Data for 2014. Source: Dow/DuPont

However, it would take time – unlike the potential for raising yields immediately using existing technologies, including those being championed by "boutique" agricultural technology companies.

"We certainly could increase yields dramatically being using all the inputs available."

'Open mind'

Besides the crop enhancement products championed by the likes of Plant Impact, which aim to stimulate plants' own abilities for example to take up nutrients or fend off pathogens, Mr Jones flagged the likes of groups promoting "microbial soil conditioner", which aim to use microorganisms to improve soils.

There are companies which improve seed germination rates by coating them protective films, or help plants prepare better for dry conditions.

Yet these technologies are often overlooked because farmers are not used to using them.

What the drive to boost yields also requires "an open mind as to what technologies to use in the field", Mr Jones says.

'Cost-conservation mode'

Still, if such technologies are so effective, why aren't the likes of Arysta LifeScience, of which he was chairman from 2008-10, and Syngenta leaping for acquisitions in the sector?

Besides their fascination for GMOs, "the big companies are in cost-conservation mode," undertaking mergers between themselves to squeeze out costs rather than looking for potential revenue growth engines, Mr Jones said.

Unlike the situation some five years ago, when boutique companies, were viewed more enthusiastically as takeover targets, now they "will be in charge of the whole process of taking their product to market".

Price incentive

And what they may need to rely on for success, if not championed by a big partner, is a rise in crop prices which spurs farmers to call on every trick to boost yields, and cash in on the bull market.

Mr Jones flags the development in the bull ag market late in the last decade of the use of fungicides on corn as a largely preventative measure, "for controlling diseases not observed.

"Many farmers, having seen benefits from this practice, still use fungicides that way."

Looking ahead too, "certainly, a price spike would recruit new technology in to the field."

Maybe agriculture investors should look to the farm inputs sector, as well as to prices of crops themselves, as a way of exploiting the next bull market in agricultural commodities.

Dr Jones will be delivering the keynote address on the Agri Tech day of Agrimoney Live 23 - 25 May. He will be outlining his vision for Agriculture in 2025.

By Mike Verdin

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