New Approaches to Crop Protection — This Time, Let’s Beat Activists to the Punch

Rob Miller and Owen Roberts at the BASF Holly Springs research farm.

Sweeping changes are taking place in crop protection, especially when it comes to traditional chemicals. I believe these changes are for the best, but they’re going to take some explaining to consumers.

Here’s what’s happening. At the BASF media summit in North Carolina this week, the company announced it was introducing an eye-popping 20 new crop protection products this year and into 2015.

BASF already spends $2 million a day on research at its U.S. headquarters in the state’s Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill), as well as in Canada and elsewhere in the world, particularly Germany and UK. That creates great jobs for sharp Aggie students, like Rob Miller, a University of Guelph 2004 OAC Wildcat who’s gone onto help manage technology development with the company (that’s Rob and me in the photo, at BASF’s Holly Springs research farm Wednesday). At Guelph, I was Rob’s teacher…now he’s the one teaching me, and others, about new BASF products. I’m very proud of his achievements.

Rob Miller and Owen Roberts at the BASF Holly Springs research farm.

Rob Miller and Owen Roberts at the BASF Holly Springs research farm.

And even though BASF calls itself The Chemical Company, it’s creating alternatives to traditional chemicals for crop protection. Several reasons exist for this, including pressure from consumers. Another University of Guelph alumnus, Nevin McDougall, who is now the company’s senior vice president of crop protection for North America, says consumers’ voices are “more prevalent in the dynamics of our industry.”

Change is also being driven by concerns from farmers. They know relying too much on a given chemical, such as a particular herbicide to fight weeds, has led to a growing number of cases of resistance. A select number of weeds naturally build up tolerance against a chemical, reproduce over a few years, and eventually the chemical is no longer effective against them. This has become a real problem.

The alternative to chemicals has mostly been other chemicals. That works for awhile, until weeds develop resistance to them, too.

So BASF, and other leading companies, are diversifying their approaches. In BASF’s case, it’s created what it calls a “functional crop care” division. Under this heading is an array of alternatives that complement the company’s conventional approaches, including so-called biological treatments that make seeds and plants stronger and more able to tolerate disease and tough conditions.

To me, key to this new direction is the way BASF is offering management help to farmers. Since 2010, the company has hired 150 field staff, including nearly 50 just in the last year, to visit farmers and not sell products, but rather, help optimize production and profitability.

BASF says sustainability is key to this strategy. Indeed, if farmers aren’t economically and environmentally sustainable, how can they feed the world, locally and globally?

This is a great story, but it won’t tell itself. Efforts must now be made to help explain terms such as biological treatments to consumers.

Here’s why. There’s no question diversified crop protection is a good-news message. But so was the introduction of agricultural biotechnology two decades or so ago – and the industry blew it by not telling consumers what was going on.

At the time, some said it was wrong to confuse or worry consumers about things they couldn’t see, such as molecular-level genetic modification. History shows this was an epic fail – anti-corporate and anti-technology activists had a heyday with it, scaring the daylights out of consumers. To this day, a percentage of consumers still ask for non-GMO products, even though they don’t really know what GMOs are. But there’s no question they think they’re bad.

So why risk the investment? At the BASF summit, company officials noted how farmers are craving information about new technology. They want to know what’s available, how to use it and how it works – not only for their own benefit, but so they have the ability to explain it to others too, such as the public.

The age of social media, as well as urban sprawl and the local food movement, puts farmers and consumers closer than ever. The spotlight is on farming, and there are superb stories to show and tell about feeding people near and far — stories about sophisticated, sustainable and responsible food production. The enlightenment and dialogue will be welcomed, and the timing is perfect for beating activists to the punch.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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