In the first partof this three-part article, we looked at the historical and recent evolution of crop protection. In this second part, we examine the current challenges in creating crop protection products and in the final piece, we’ll present emerging trends and future outlook.
The challenges to producing crop protection products in our modern era are numerous and multifaceted. Here are the thoughts of representatives from major manufacturers on prominent challenges and how they are best met.
What are the most significant current challenges in the development and commercialization of crop protection products?
CropLife International (Spokesperson Will Surman):
Developing innovative products for farmers is not cheap or easy. On average, it takes 11 years of research and development to bring a single product to market, at a cost of $286m – up 55% since 2000. In 2016, the number of new active ingredients added to the market was at its fourth lowest since 1950 – under five.
Companies also face the challenge of overcoming unpredictable regulation. For example, the EU regulatory approach is often founded on political rather than scientific considerations while the U.S. tends to have a more risk-based and science-led approach. With such regulatory uncertainty and diversity across regions, the confidence for companies to invest in new innovations can be undermined.
On top of this, crop protection products constantly, and rightly, face public scrutiny over their safety and sustainability in food production, but this scrutiny is often led by activist campaigns, rather than real scientific concerns. Without societal acceptance, agriculture could be deprived of vital products for food security.
Crop protection is constantly evolving though, with testing and screening at its highest ever level to ensure product safety. Spending on testing to ensure products do not harm the environment has also increased since 2000, up 118% to average $71m a product. This means that products are now far more targeted, rather than broad spectrum – something that progress in precision farming has optimised.
BASF (Alyson Emanuel, business head of the Functional Crop Care unit in BASF Crop Protection):
A challenge in the development and commercialization of biological seed treatments is on-seed survival. We are working on this diligently ourselves. For example, we have achieved 225 days on-seed survival with our inoculant Nodulator Pro 225. Another challenge in the development and commercialization of biological seed treatments is compatibility with other products, to make sure biologicals are not mixed with products that might impede or eliminate their effectiveness.
Bayer (Utz Klages, head of External Communications):
Especially for resistance management, it is essential that farmers have a broad variety of tools available to fight weeds, pests and diseases. We must help them use the tools they have in sustainable manner and work on finding new modes of action.
Monsanto (Brian Carroll External Communications Manager, Europe):
One challenge is to produce multiple herbicide tolerances. Growers have expressed a preference for this.
Dow/DuPont (Media Relations Lead Dan Turner): First and foremost, the challenge is to find novel technologies that meet the needs of growers, regulators, the food chain and ultimately the consumer. That relates to another challenge – having the proper foresight to envision and understand those future needs.
Another challenge relating to the EU specifically is the lack of predictability of the regulatory framework and the focus on hazards rather than risks. This makes it harder to make decisions very early in the product development process about which potential leads to advance first. Currently it takes around ten years from discovery of a crop protection product to commercialization in North America, and in Europe it takes even longer.
Syngenta (Camilla Corsi, head of crop protection research):
Increasing regulatory requirements lengthen timelines and introduce uncertainty.
How will these challenges be overcome?
Dow/DuPont: The lack of predictability of the regulatory framework in the EU can be solved through forming an organization that is committed to accelerate the pace of innovation to create solutions which will deliver abundant, high-quality food now and for the future. This will also require large investments from companies.
Companies need to be patient, have a collaborative spirit and have a good pragmatic process to assess future industry needs and opportunities. Similarly important is for companies to be fully aware that not all projects succeed for various regulatory reasons, so the innovation company must be able to support large financial loss if a project is cancelled mid-way through the journey.
To find novel technologies that meet the needs of the entire system requires companies to have a unique capability for introspection. Having the foresight to envision future needs is a significant challenge– and risky if that foresight is not accurate. Finding new modes of action is very challenging and requires great science and great scientists to discover those products that will provide novel efficacy while meeting evolving regulatory demands – but it remains the Holy Grail.
Bayer: To identify a new mode of action for the control of pests and diseases, but especially to combat weed infestations, we must innovate, powered by our people and their diverse skillsets. Our employees in R&D have a very broad variety of scientific, technical and managerial backgrounds and we support them in building on their talents, but also in exchanging and acquiring new knowledge. We follow a broad variety of approaches to find molecules of a new mode of action.
We work on that ourselves and spend billions a year, but we have also set up partnerships with external parties who support us by investing own resources into our R&D activities (e.g., GRDC in weed control research, CRDF for the search for solutions against Citrus Greening).
To bring more regulatory certainty we can only continue to insist that science, not politics, is driving the decision-making process. Most members of the public understand that farmers need crop protection products to prevent pests from destroying their crop. But they are suspicious of big business – a sentiment that is certainly not exclusive to the plant science industry. The answer is to be open and transparent with the public. Currently the industry ensures detailed studies and full data are submitted to regulatory bodies for all crop protection products. All toxicologically-relevant data is also available to the public. Our industry remains fully committed to transparency and continues to look into new methods to improve access to regulatory data.
There is also a concern among society over recent mergers between companies. While CropLife International does not comment on any potential mergers and acquisitions, nor speculate on the impact of these possible changes to the marketplace, it is important to note that all large mergers and acquisitions must obtain prior approval by anti-trust authorities in major markets around the world to preserve competition and protect consumers.
It is also important that we emphasize the benefits of plant science to the public. CropLife International and its members are committed to serving the needs of farmers worldwide by developing plant science innovations that increase crop productivity, improve farmer livelihoods, and help enable food and nutrition security in a time of unprecedented population growth, increasing pest, weed and disease pressures, and expected difficult growing conditions brought on by climate change. Companies engaged in the plant sciences see farmers as not only customers, but as partners, and are committed to developing solutions that provide agronomic benefits that support their businesses.
It is important that the plant science industry be competitive and diverse as this ensures a diverse product choice for farmers. The industry is far more diverse than CropLife International’s membership — it includes countless small and medium-sized companies; public and private sector research institutions; and multi-national, regional, and local companies — as well as emerging and new companies and research institutions that enter the industry.
Syngenta: Industry efficiency and consolidation are needed to deal with the unpredictable impacts of climate change, low global commodity prices and increasing regulatory requirements. Innovation remains the key to success as well as integrating farmers’ needs into the R&D process as early as possible.
The current environment has prompted all companies to review their strategies and approaches to ensuring efficiency and the ability to continue to invest in new technology. It is very costly to invest in the R&D required to ‘discover’ and bring new products to market, and therefore scale for innovation is extremely important, as is leveraging partnerships. At Syngenta, we have over 400 agreements with academic institutions, companies, individuals, charities and NGO’s to ensure we can find the answers to growers’ challenges.
Syngenta is now taking a holistic approach even in the very early phase of research. Around eight years ago, Syngenta started to implement a new approach in product development and it resulted in the launch of ADEPIDYN, a broad-spectrum fungicide for multiple crops in 2016. This is an unprecedented pace of R&D. Starting with that product, molecules are assessed by our scientists for their spectrum of activity and potency but also against other criteria such as chemical stability, environmental behavior, safety, production costs and likelihood of meeting regulatory requirements.
We as an industry need to work with governments and other bodies to help shape policy and ensure that regulatory requirements are science-based. Against this background, the opportunities offered by science have never been greater. The convergence of chemistry, biology and mathematics is enabling us to innovate faster, more precisely and with more predictable results. Increasingly, we can apply predictive science to innovate by design, using data-driven techniques to create better products that meet growers’ needs.
To meet the challenges of market demand, seed companies will have to offer a complete systems approach – seed treatments, herbicide and insect tolerances, chemistry solutions, even data-science options and packages – to set themselves apart from competitors in the marketplace. A timely approval process can ensure that we can bring these technologies to growers more quickly, so they can realize the full benefits on the farm. Education is also vital for helping farmers use new technologies successfully.
Collaboration is another strategy for success and we expect to continue to see collaborations that make sense for growers.
Crop protection product development: an overview
CropLife International states that the commercialization of every crop protection product currently costs $286 million and takes 11 years of research and development to ensure it meets the highest safety and efficacy standards.
Steps in development of a crop protection product, courtesy BASF:
- Initial testing– in the earliest stage, test systems need to be highly automated and miniaturized to make it possible to test as many or more than 100 000 molecules each year. For example, leaf fragments replace whole plants and insect eggs and larvae are used as model organisms for insects.
- Refinement of new substances– involves synthesis and testing to improve the efficacy of the new chemical class.
- Development of a model to support optimization – includes investigation of the mode of action and the minimization of toxicology and ecotoxicology potential
- Testing on plants in greenhouses
- Worldwide field trials
- Structural optimizationwith respect to biological efficacy, environmental impact and cost of manufacturing
- Patent protection
- Further studies on product safety
- Application for registration
Reduced challenges with pheromone product commercialization
Pheromones are the chemicals released by organisms to communicate with others of their species, typically released into the air and used for a variety of purposes including attraction of mates. Because pheromone crop protection products have a more environmentally benign nature than some other products, the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. (EPA) has adjusted its review of them. In an October 2017 Agronews articlecalled ‘Navigating hurdles to bring pheromone pesticides to market,’ Johnny Johnson and Christian Kerr note that while mating-disruption products still have to be registered under the U.S. Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act passed in 1947, the EPA has reduced and removed several requirements. However, they explain that “just because a particular pesticide is considered a biopesticide for registration purposes does not necessarily guarantee an expedited registration process.”
Kerr and Johnson note that manufacturers of biopesticides must: list starting materials, provide steps taken to ensure integrity and limit contamination of starting materials, verify identity and purity of the seed stock and report quality control methods and the techniques used to ensure product uniformity. They believe “the ease, relatively speaking, of registration of [pheromone] products should encourage their more widespread use in the near future. Products that kill nothing and still protect vital crops could become a vital part of our agricultural economy.”