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The Big Four

Business leaders discuss the future of ag industry

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Business leaders discuss the future of ag industry

All the topics were on the table when leaders from the world’s four largest seed companies sat down to talk at the 2018 American Seed Trade Association Corn Sorghum and Soybean Seed Expo in Chicago. Dan Basse, founder of AgResource Co., headquartered in Chicago, moderated the panel. James Collins Jr., CEO of Corteva Agriscience; Scott Kay, vice president of U.S. Crop Protection for BASF; Jeff Rowe, president global seeds North America and China for Syngenta, and Lisa Safarian, commercial operations head for crop science, North America, at Bayer, discussed their companies’ recent mergers and acquisitions and how that could impact farmers and crop technology in the future.

“These companies have experienced significant transition in the past couple of years, which impacts across the industry. I think this panel brings the best incorporation of technology and their vision for the future,” said Dan Basse, founder of AgResource Co., who moderated the American Seed Trade Association panel and asked the panelists questions, including questions from the audience.

The panelists included Lisa Safarian, commercial operations head for crop science, North America, Bayer; Scott Kay, vice president for U.S. Crop Protection, BASF; James Collins Jr., CEO, Corteva Agriscience; and Jeff Rowe, president global seeds North America and China, Syngenta.

China has historically been a priority for this industry. Given the recent tariffs and trade tensions, how does your company view China as a priority market in the future?

Business leaders discuss the future of ag industry


Collins: I would say first, before we fix the issues with intellectual property in China, let’s fix the issues associated with China controlling the grain trade everywhere else in the world.

We have certainly put our energy and focus in working with USDA, supporting some of the trade policies that are out there in the hopes that China will view themselves as a global player in the grain industry and helping to open up a market to a farmer in Nebraska, who’s walking past a product that can do 10 bushels an acre better next year because they are sitting on the import approval.

Safarian: It’s more difficult to do business in China. You’ve got to move a little slower, you’ve got to give up your IP, you’ve got to do joint ventures.

Our hope is that as these trade talks continue, that some of those things will change and that we will see some protection of intellectual property and we will see that we can do business differently. But even with the difficulties that we see today in China, we still view China as an opportunity.

Business leaders discuss the future of ag industry


Rowe: I totally agree with that. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to point to intellectual property, as well as those approvals. One of the things we feel is an obligation, at Syngenta, to help with the modernization of some of those regulatory systems within China.

I think it’s a really good thing for our industry that China owns a multinational company like Syngenta. That’s a step change. I believe, I have reason to believe that acquisition will result in improvements in some of these areas that we all have concerns about.

You stated that Bayer wants to promote a trusting relationship with consumers. Honesty and trust will be your cornerstone in achieving this objective. I’ve heard that Bayer may settle suits of Roundup because it’s more economical. This does not satisfy the fact that Roundup is safe. The settlement does not support the trust and honesty that goes forward. I was disappointed when Gerber baby food chose not to use GMO in its ingredients.

Safarian: That was a comment that our CEO, Werner Baumann, made during one press conference. The fact is we are standing behind the safety and use of Roundup.

Obviously, when the judge overturned a big part of the punitive settlement in the California case in October, that was a first step. We are going to appeal that and we believe that it’s really important that we rely on science and we demonstrate that the science is strong and that there are no safety concerns with the use of glyphosate or glyphosate products.

Over time, I think a lot of the answer to that, when you have thousands and thousands of (lawsuits), you have to figure out how to manage them, but we are a ways from that. We’re going to continue with this because we do think it’s important that science prevails.

Based on the mergers and acquisitions that have just happened, how do we assure farmers that they are really getting the innovation they need and what choices they have in seed going forward?

Business leaders discuss the future of ag industry


Safarian: We are still very much committed to broad licensing. That was Monsanto’s history, and that will continue now to be the history under Bayer. As we think about licensing, we’re not too proud, we will license in and we will license out to whoever wants to take that licensing.

As we go forward and there’s not as many of us, we need to be more focused and with the industry the way it is, from a competition perspective, it’s quite possible that we’ll get better at R&D because, instead of trying to recreate the same thing someone created, let’s just license it in, license it out and then focus on something else that hasn’t been made available to the farmer.

Rowe: I would say that innovation in our industry isn’t limited to the people sitting on this stage. There’s been a lot of great innovation brought by smaller seed companies that are in this room.

I have had a lot of conversations with farmers over the last few years where there is definitely a recognition about the level of innovation that’s been brought to the seed in the bag that’s being delivered to customers. Customers recognize that, in more drought-ish situations, we have better genetics, better treatments that provide safer higher yields than they would have been five or 10 years ago.

There are obviously a lot of small and medium-sized seed producers. You are obviously the four biggest. What would you tell them for their future as they think about the opportunities ahead or where they should be positioning themselves?

Business leaders discuss the future of ag industry


Collins: We are going to be much more open and willing to license and talk about licensing opportunities, and we are going to be reaching out to many of you to say how can you be a part of helping us make sure that some of the things we have to get into the hands of the grower where they can do the most good, drive productivity and help with profitability.

Kay: I think just continue to add choice into the marketplace. It’s the commitment to R&D that’s going to deliver that.

I think also maintaining our ongoing dialogue and discussions about what some of those future needs are, so we are headed in the right direction are some of the key areas for us.

What do you think the biggest change will be that consumers will see in the next five years?

Collins: We think about healthier oils, we know that some of the products we have out there, like Plenish and some of the partnerships we have with a number of the grain processing folks, that there is quite a bit of interest in demand for oils that are healthier and can eliminate hydrogenation and can support a heart healthy regime.

I think taste and flavor is another area. I certainly think shelf life and longevity is a big piece, and I think we absolutely have to attack the more sustainable side of it, so a consumer feels good about the products they are buying and they feel like they are investing in the health of the planet going forward.

Rowe: I think there’s also a big opportunity to create more systems agriculture. What I mean by that is thinking about cover crops and other crops that might be complementary to traditional ag crops and looking at how we can continue to enhance yield and improve the environment.

Safarian: I think it goes back to how do we tell that story in a meaningful way because I do think it will resonate with consumers. That’s exactly what they want to know, and that is probably our best first play because we have a lot of those stories now. I think we can have some really quick wins when we do that.

Jeannine Otto can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 211, or Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Otto.


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