Bayer CropScience has an ambitious goal: to find innovative answers to the challenges of the future. In pursuit of that aim, the company spends some €1 billion a year on agricultural research and development designed to help feed the growing global population.
At the wheat breeding station in Milly-la-Forêt, France, researcher Dr. Catherine Baillon checks on the well-being of her charges – hundreds of tiny seedlings, which she developed from plant embryos less than a millimeter in size. “Any one of them could be a bull’s eye, with the potential to help shape the future of farming,” Baillon explains. To find this special seed, the research team in Milly-la-Forêt works with high-yielding, elite varieties that are well adapted to the climatic conditions in France. The mission now is to upgrade these premium varieties. To that end, the Bayer CropScience researchers are looking all over the world for exotic types of wheat with special genes. Through cross-breeding and selection, they create new varieties boasting increased resistance to heat, drought, low temperatures, excessive precipitation, diseases and pests.
Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of human calorie requirements.
“This kind of process normally takes eight to ten years,” Baillon says. “Here in Milly-la-Forêt, we use the latest methods to speed it up, such as molecular markers that show us at a very early growth stage whether a seedling possesses the target gene; or a new technology that helps us to firmly anchor an exotic gene in a plant in a single step, without time-consuming cross-breeding over several generations.” This allows Bayer CropScience researchers to develop wheat varieties that deliver excellent yields even under increasingly adverse climatic conditions.
And their work is of critical importance because wheat has a major role to play in feeding the more than 9 billion people who are expected to be living on the planet by 2050. “Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of human calorie requirements: from New York to São Paulo, from Paris to Johannesburg,” says Bayer CropScience CEO Liam Condon. Even in traditional rice-eating countries like China and India, this grain is an important part of people’s diets. However, long-term trends currently indicate a widening gap between demand and productivity. “Plant stress factors such as heat are intensifying worldwide with the result that over the next few decades, yields will fall below today’s level of three tons per hectare, while the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the demand will rise to 5.5 tons per hectare by 2050,” Condon explains.
people will be living on the planet by 2050.
To close this gap, Bayer CropScience operates wheat breeding stations in France and the major wheat-growing areas of Australia, Canada, Germany, Ukraine and the United States. “Our goal is to build a world-leading wheat seed business based on high-yielding, robust varieties,” says Steve Patterson, Cereals Crop Manager at Bayer CropScience. “Our strategically located breeding stations adapt highly efficient wheat varieties to local growing and environmental conditions while also fulfilling the regional and global needs of mills and bakeries.” The first Bayer wheat seed is scheduled for commercialization in Eastern Europe as of 2015.
The company has been a market leader in the global cereals business for decades, supplying know-how and integrated farming solutions tailored to local needs. The crop protection portfolio for wheat includes herbicides, seed treatments, insecticides and fungicides. Bayer CropScience’s products also protect wheat immediately post-harvest and during storage in grain silos against losses due to diseases or pests.
New diseases call for new methods
When new challenges arise in farming, ready solutions are not always at hand. Take citrus greening, for example, a bacterial disease that prevents citrus fruits from ripening. “If a mature orange grove is infected, the trees decline and lose productivity. Younger infected trees never reach full production and may die within a few years,” says Dr. Dennis Warkentin, a Technical Service Representative for Bayer CropScience in Florida. Citrus greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB or “yellow dragon disease”), originated in China but has now spread to the two largest producer regions for juice oranges: Brazil and Florida. In Florida, 80 percent of all citrus trees are already infected, and so far, there is no product to treat the disease. “The very future of the orange juice industry is at stake here,” says citrus grower David Evans, whose grandfather founded his family business over 100 years ago. But Evans and his fellow farmers in the Florida Citrus Mutual growers’ association are determined to fight for Florida’s future as the “Orange State.” Explains Evans: “We have weathered many crises in the past, and we won’t give up this time either, because we believe that companies like Bayer – with their global commitment to research – will find solutions for us.”
Researchers at Bayer CropScience are focusing their efforts on the development of products to fight the “yellow dragon.” To bridge the time to market, the specialists are implementing different approaches, such as controlling the disease vector – pinhead-sized insects called psyllids. In cooperation with growers’ associations, universities and the beverage industry, Bayer is currently developing a combination of biological and chemical solutions to combat this pest. “In early 2015, we plan to launch a first systemic insecticide that controls psyllids but protects beneficial insects in citrus groves. After that we also plan to introduce purely biological solutions,” explains Kai Wirtz, who is responsible for the global fruit crop strategy at Bayer CropScience.
At the same time, Bayer CropScience is developing a set of emergency measures for citrus growers like David Evans. These measures include strengthening plant health in the groves, monitoring psyllids and impeding their spread by phytosanitary means. Growers in Florida are determined to defy the “dragon” and are confidently planting new citrus groves. “In the past, we’ve had annual orange harvests totaling some 240 million boxes here in Florida. Today we’re down to just 105 million. But with the help of companies like Bayer, we intend to restore the Florida citrus industry to its former health and size,” says Evans.
Digital technology in agriculture
Bayer CropScience’s commitment to shaping the future of farming does not stop at developing innovative seeds and protecting crops. Together with partners, the company is promoting the use of new digital technologies such as high-resolution remote sensing. The growth of field crops, for example, can be monitored with high precision from space. Infrared images indicate which areas of a field are suffering from stress factors – even before the human eye can detect any external damage to the plants. “The technology was used in 2014 in the American Midwest to compare new soybean varieties,” explains Tobias Menne, who is working to advance this new area of activity at Bayer CropScience. “At any given moment, farmers would know where remedial action was needed without having to check the crops on-site in the field.” That opens up entirely new opportunities. “Technologies like this can optimize the application of crop protection products and fertilizers in industrialized nations – and can also bring highly specialized expertise to the world’s poorest countries,” Menne says.
The first Bayer wheat seed is scheduled for commercialization in Eastern Europe as of
Providing innovations in many different areas, Bayer CropScience is shaping the future of farming. The company develops solutions both for large agribusinesses and for the millions of small-holders around the globe, to help achieve the aim of sustainably producing enough food for the world.
Liam Condon, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Bayer CropScience, on the future of crop protection
The example of citrus greening shows only too clearly how serious the situation can become if devastating plant diseases spread unchecked. That’s why research-based companies like Bayer CropScience are committed to the development of innovative solutions to protect harvests throughout the world. Together with partners from industry and academia, we search for new, groundbreaking technologies that protect people and the environment and enable farmers and growers to produce safe food. The high level of investment this involves means we have to be able to rely on the regulatory framework.
So decisions about crop protection must not be politicized. To overcome the challenges facing global agriculture, we need decision-making to be based on scientific data and cost-benefit analyses. Because farmers are relying on us to deliver.
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