Novel and data-enabled approaches can help farmers address myriad challenges, but private and public sectors must be aligned in order to green-light innovation
By Olivier de Matos
Director General, CropLife Europe
In the words of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.” The world is undergoing a period of profound changes, many of them serious, some potentially existential. We don’t underestimate the challenges, but what Jobs highlights is the mindset needed to overcome them.
Like Jobs, the crop protection industry believes that the ongoing transformation in the way Europe produces its food is a hugely positive development, not just a response to adverse circumstances. Crop production is easier said than done. Changes to our environment – due to climate change, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity – are directly impacting food production.
Farmers also face new threats such as the emergence of new invasive alien species. Add to this a rapidly rising global population and new consumer demands – not just for affordable, qualitative food, but also changing expectations about how that food should be produced.
That is why our industry has committed to invest €10bn in innovation in precision and digital technologies by 2030, and a further €4bn in innovation in biopesticides by 2030.
This investment aims to drive innovations both natural and technological, so accelerating farmers’ abilities to fight pests and plant diseases while also protecting the environment and overcoming the myriad challenges they face.
To support the European Commission’s ambitions of a “digital and green recovery”, our industry is already deploying innovative new digital tools, with many more in the pipeline. To date we have invested €3.9bn in both technologies.
Precision and digital technologies have already massively decreased agriculture’s ecological footprint: between the 1950s and 2000s, farmers’ pesticide and herbicide use has dropped by roughly 95 per cent per hectare, thanks to advancements and innovation in crop protection technologies.
The internet is also playing a key role in transforming farming systems, enabling the use of digital tools such as GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, etc. Images from satellites and drones supply vital information on the health of plants in the field. Sensors on tractors, harvesters and other connected devices then provide a wealth more information on soil type and condition, plus water and nutrient availability.
This treasure trove of data allows farmers to apply precisely the right pesticide or biopesticide at precisely the right time, in precisely the right place and in precisely the right amount.
What makes these new digital tools particularly useful to farmers is their versatility. No two farms are the same, so a one-size-fits-all approach cannot possibly address the many variables that exist across fields, or even within a single field. Big data, combined with new digital technologies, can overcome this challenge.
The development of biopesticides is a second key focus area for our industry. Biopesticides are substances of a natural origin that protect crops from pests and diseases, so contributing to higher yields. They group into four categories: semiochemicals (eg: pheromones), natural substances (botanicals and biochemicals), macrobials (beneficial insects) and microbials (bacteria or viruses).
Using nature as our starting point, we are developing innovative new biopesticides with favourable toxicological safety profiles, low residue levels and rapid degradation. Our investment in innovation is making biopesticides easier to discover, more targeted, safer and more effective than ever before.
It should be stressed that while these new substances can reduce the need for chemical pesticides, they will most likely complement rather than totally replace conventional chemistry. Farmers will still need a complete toolbox of solutions to be able to respond to the myriad challenges and changes that they face.
However, industry investments alone will not unlock the potential of biopesticides. We also need the EU’s institutions to ensure its regulatory framework enables producers to put innovative biopesticides on the market.
We need a regulatory framework that embraces and rewards innovation. Many new solutions are currently either stuck in the regulatory pipeline or lack the dedicated regulatory pathways for approval. A single new biopesticide can take up to seven years before it can be used by a European farmer. On top of that, farmers then need to be trained in its use before it can be adopted. This long lag means that any solution conceived today will only arrive on the market as the EU’s Farm to Fork deadline hits.
Today’s agricultural innovations are outpacing Europe’s regulatory framework’s ability to approve them. With the clock ticking, the private and public sectors must embrace Jobs’ positive mindset and work closely together to unlock the abundant opportunities offered by industry’s investments in agricultural innovation.
This article was first published on FT.com