Celine Zimmerli from Bayer CropScience’s wheat breeding centre in Milly-la-Forêt, France controlling fertilisation to create new combinations of traits. Photo supplied by Bayer CropScience.

Breeding Techniques    |   Regulatory   

Martin Gruss talked to Adrian Percy, Head of R&D at Bayer Division Crop Science, and Mathias Kremer, Head of Crop Strategies and Portfolio Management, about the latest research developments, future perspectives, and the increasing need for tailored solutions – especially in the area of seed treatment.

Martin Gruss: For a few years now, better seed treatment has been a rapidly growing part of agriculture. There is an increasing need for new solutions, from fungicidal and insecticidal treatments that protect growing seedlings, to improved equipment and machinery. Mathias and Adrian, what makes Bayer SeedGrowth™ so successful in your opinion?

Mathias Kremer: Bayer is the only company in the world that offers a fully integrated system for on-seed applications. We offer, among others, products, coatings, equipment, and a wide range of services. Farmers, breeders, seed companies, and industrial customers alike benefit from our well-rounded range of services such as testing, training, advice, and technical support. It is our intention to reinforce this successful business model. We want to use our experience and knowledge to achieve greater customer proximity and faster reaction times.

Adrian Percy: I fully agree. Bayer also significantly invests in research and development. Finding new technologies to help farmers to protect their crops, for example against yield-robbing nematodes, is our passion. For us, innovation is crucial to continue to improve modern agriculture. Seed treatment technologies not only offer effective pest and disease control – adding microbials or inoculants enhances and stimulates root and plant growth.

Martin Gruss: What research areas are Bayer focusing on? Can you give us an example?

Adrian Percy: One of our newest research areas is crop efficiency. The crops of the future will have to deliver top performance. Our researchers are seeking to systematically optimize the yield potential of crops. They work with all technologies available, in particular breeding, traits, and biologicals. In addition to improving the genome, Bayer’s specialists are also focusing on the plants’ nutrient balance. Bayer scientists also want to take advantage of symbiotic relationships between plants and microorganisms, to not only optimize the crop’s genetic potential but also to maximize nutrient uptake. This is one of our research targets in our biologics department. However, inserting the beneficial organisms into an effective seed dressing is a unique challenge because the interactions between microbes and plants are often much more complex than we think.

Mathias Kremer: Poncho™ / VOTiVO™ is one example of combining a chemical insecticide with a microbial mode of action: VOTiVO™ delivers a unique root-colonizing bacteria strain that lives and grows with young roots, creating a living barrier that prevents nematodes from causing damage. What makes VOTiVO so unique is also the fact that it delivers growth-stimulating plant hormones to seedlings, providing growers a yield benefit even in the absence of insects and nematodes.Adrian Percy: In addition to chemical and biological solutions, we have the expertise in genetics and traits which will provide us with the opportunity to look at new seed performance technologies.

Martin Gruss: We can imagine that this requires increasing resources and that we, at Bayer, cannot do this alone. How important are research collaborations for you? And with whom are you collaborating?

Adrian Percy: Bayer considers collaborations with third parties a driving force for enhancing our innovative R&D pipeline, particularly in the areas of traits, breeding technology, on-farm data, and, of course, chemical and biological crop protection, including seed treatments. For example, Bayer and the German research center Jülich, a member of the Helmholtz Association, have entered into a five-year strategic research collaboration named Phenotyping for Products (P4P). The insights gained in the collaboration are expected to help uncover how microbial seed treatments affect the root growth, architecture, and vigor of relevant crops, as well as how microbes colonize root systems.

Martin Gruss: How important are biological solutions for the research area as well as our product portfolio?

Mathias Kremer: The global demand for biological plant protection products is increasing. We think it is important to cater to our customers’ needs through various technologies, such as a combination of chemical and microbial modes of action, in order to give farmers the possibility to choose what fits best into their farming operation. Biologicals truly complement our chemical portfolio to provide integrated solutions.

Adrian Percy: These new solutions not only result in keeping soil diseases or pests under control, but also contribute to increased yields and new value propositions such as the uniformity of the crop. Biologicals based on microbes are known to have season-long effects on their surroundings, something we refer to as plant-microbe interactions. These intimate relationships contribute to soil and root health via multiple pathways: from altering the plant’s development and architecture to enhanced nutrient uptake.

Martin Gruss: We talked about research activities, equipment, products, and services. What are the main challenges for the industry?

Adrian Percy: I think the main challenge won’t be to tackle new pests and diseases or to find new solutions for occurring resistance. That does not mean that finding these new solutions is easy, but it is our daily business in research and development. As you can imagine, the pressure from Lepidoptera and Coleoptera on corn and soybeans will stay high. This is also true for aphids or soil, seed-borne diseases in cereals, or hoppers in rice. The main challenge for the industry will be to deal with the partial public perception of the safety of seed treatment with regard to its potential effect on human health, but also of course on water, soil, and pollinators. Demonstrating and driving this safety is equally as important as the benefits of Bayer SeedGrowth products for farmers.

Mathias Kremer: This is why modern seed treatment technologies are crucial for sustainable agriculture. One example of our commitment is the innovative seed application technology called Fluency Agent developed by Bayer, which can significantly reduce the potential dust exposure to pollinators during seed planting. Fluency Agent is currently commercially available in Canada and the US.

Martin Gruss: The legal and regulatory environment plays a pivotal role in competitive markets. How do new regulations impact the business?

Adrian Percy: We at Bayer understand why people have questions about the technologies used in modern agriculture. Having spent a large part of my professional career as a toxicologist, I’ve learned a lot about regulatory science, safety, and risk assessment. In fact, what drew me to this field in the first place was a desire to better understand the relationship between the products we use and their potential impact on people and the environment. What has been a guiding principle for me over the course of my career is that the science that drives our regulatory process is sacred ground. Bayer is investing approximately EUR 1 billion a year in research and development. We at Bayer believe in and support a science-based regulatory environment. While crop protection products carry some inherent risk, their benefits play an important role in securing affordable and safe food. The amount of regulatory testing we do is designed to make sure that we protect crops without causing harm to people or our environment. We are disappointed that science has taken a back seat in the decision-making process.

Mathias Kremer: In the past decade, Bayer has, from a global perspective, brought more products to market than any other company in the industry. Actions that undermine science or slow down innovation only hurt farmers and ultimately the consumers. The further reduction of effective crop protection products will put a farmer’s ability to tackle important pests at risk, possibly severely restricting their ability to grow safe, high-quality food. As an innovation-driven company, we depend on reliable legal and political conditions, in particular as the basis for future investment decisions.

Martin Gruss: Final question: what do you think will make the life of farmers easier in future?

Mathias Kremer: Farmers face many challenges and go to enormous lengths to solve them while at the same time considering the impacts on their business and the environment. It is our objective to offer farmers new tools that will help them to manage these challenges better. New innovations in seeds and crop protection will certainly help, but I believe new digital technologies will have the increasing potential to be a game changer. We are absolutely convinced that there is a paradigm shift occurring in agriculture. Just like smartphones help us communicate, consume information, and make important decisions in new ways, smart technology in agriculture – known as digital farming – will improve on-farm decision-making. Bayer aims to be at the forefront of this revolution by developing effective and actionable technologies with the greatest possible benefits for farmers, the entire value chain, and the environment.

Martin Gruss: Many thanks for this interview and for sharing your views.

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