Corteva boss: ‘Mother Nature’ changes the game quickly and demands new agricultural tools

Jim Collins: "We have to respect the laws and regulators in the markets we are operating in." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

“Mother Nature” is changing quickly and this requires the adoption of technology-driven solutions that will help both growers and consumers, Jim Collins, the chief operating officer of Corteva Agriscience, the Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, told EURACTIV.

The merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont (DowDuPont) was finalised at the end of August 2017. In addition to DowDuPont, there is also Bayer’s $66 billion buyout of Monsanto and ChemChina’s $43 billion acquisition of Syngenta, which is due to be followed by a planned SinoChem merger in 2018.

The agriculture division of the merged companies is named Corteva Agriscience.

“The word ‘core’ meaning heart or centre, and the word “teva” meaning nature or earth. So, it’s the core, heart of nature. The name itself has a meaning aiming to help improve the livelihoods of producers across the world,” Collins said.

A new focus on consumers

Collins said the main objective is to enrich the lives of those who produce, but a key challenge will also be to improve the lives of those who consume.

“We are working hard to get the consumer perspective in our view as a new company, working to understand those trends that are developing globally and making sure that we have the maximum flexibility around the use of our technology to work rapidly and help growers benefit from that technology,” he said.

Collins explained that the reason for the merger was to free up the duplicative resources that sometimes come from two separate companies, so that “we could make some funds and resources available to re-invest in growth so we could create more opportunities”.

“Research and development in agriculture is a requirement, not a choice, because Mother Nature is changing the game too quickly and we believe that the continued development of new tools will be necessary.”

“There is a need for new products for resistance management. As climate change has moved some cropping practices around, new pests are constantly emerging and we have to stay ahead of these changing trends,” he added.

In addition, the agricultural expert stressed that the regulators were always raising the bar, looking for better and safer alternatives.

“Due to these reasons, we decided to come together and invest in science to bring solutions. The EU market provides great opportunities for us.”

A tailor-made approach

The Corteva boss noted the company would deal with livelihoods of growers globally, from an African smallholder to a large producer in Hawaii or a commercial farmer in the EU.

“We design agricultural products for the markets that they serve,” he said, adding that there is room for science to improve not only the quantity of production but also its quality, bringing a safer and more sustainable set of outcomes.

“In Europe especially, there is room for new tools that can drive agriculture to be more sustainable such as better use of water or less use of inputs, more productivity on a smaller footprint, the continued management of biodiversity etc.”

He explained that the challenging debate on how technology can be a part of the future solutions and not part of the problem would always be there and pointed out that in the past, the benefits were not communicated properly.

“So, for the drought situations we have seen in southern Europe, there are products that are perfectly suited for these markets. Or some new crop protection products with environment-friendly profiles and control pests that we have lost the ability to control.”

“Society is constantly raising the bar, we understand and respond to that. But we have to use technology to solve these issues.”

The new plant breeding techniques

Collins also referred to the discussion in Europe about the so-called “new plant breeding techniques” (NPBTs), a term that describes a number of scientific methods for the genetic engineering of plants to enhance traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will decide most probably after summer whether these techniques should be classed as GMOs and, therefore, fall under the strict GMO approval process.

Supporters of NPBTs argue that plants obtained through these techniques could also be the product of conventional cross-breeding techniques that mimic natural processes and hence cannot be considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

New plant breeding techniques concern law interpretation, Commission says

The future of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) at the EU level lies in the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of existing law, Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told EURACTIV.com, adding that the executive will act accordingly at the political level.

Opponents insist that these techniques should fall under the GM legislation and accuse the agri-food industry of trying to bring GMOs in Europe through the back door.

“It’s hard for me to speculate about the exact outcome of the ECJ. At the end of the day, I do believe that we have some new plant breeding techniques that can dramatically improve the speed of things that we already do today.”

“So, we are excited about the debate moving from the science to what outcomes can we generate.”

He noted that with the NPBTs, growers will improve water utilisation or even crops – something they were not able to do before. Referring to Europe in particular, he cited wheat as an example of a crop whose productivity we have not been able to improve.

Environmental NGOs are critical of the NPBTs, saying that with the patents that will be created, the dependence of farmers on big agri-food corporations will increase.

“A patent is merely a way to make sure that we are securing the rights to operate with that technology. In the past, some have tried to keep this patent state a little bit more closed but we have taken a completely different approach. We believe that access to this technology should be broad.”

“We are working with others to broadly license it, especially smaller start-up academic laboratories. All are part of what we call ag-ecosystem of our providers and we should work together,” he said.

He noted that once a really interesting trait or a product is developed, you still need to work with a larger Germplasm base that companies like ours have.

“We are open to those collaborations and this will be a defining complement + licensing this technology. So, it’s not just in the hands of a few.”

Respect the laws

Collins was also asked about the controversial issues of glyphosate and neonicotinoids.

In the glyphosate case, the industry praised the European Commission for its focus on science while in the case of neonicotinoids it criticised the EU executive.

For Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU Commissioner responsible for health, the two cases prove the Commission’s “consistency”.

“We had evidence related to glyphosate and we made consistent decisions. Of course, our message was ‘together with member states’ and we achieved a majority vote. Now, we have evidence about challenges related to bee population and neonicotinoids are very dangerous in this field, once again we are consistent. No one can blame the Commission for being in the hands of some lobby,” Andriukaitis recently told EURACTIV.

Andriukaitis: Neonics case proves Commission is ‘consistent’ with science

No one can blame the European Commission of being in the hands of industry lobbies, as in both the glyphosate and neonicotinoids cases, it made “consistent” decisions, EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told EURACTIV.com.

For Collins, the local regulatory framework of any region across the world should be always respected.

“We have to respect the laws and regulators in the markets we are operating in. Clearly, there are choices to be made, we are happy to be involved in the discussion, but once decisions are made, we are obliged to execute them accordingly. Our aim in Corteva is to be a trusted source of information and we want to be part and help different governments around the world building up the future regulatory systems,” he emphasised.

“We may disagree sometimes when some technologies are banned, we may have disagreed with some interpretations of the data, but at the end of the day we abide by those decisions,” the Corteva boss concluded.

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