Apart from providing the technology, we also need to look into how these technologies are delivered to the hands of the growers.
by Andre Oliveira
Freak weather conditions are becoming the norm these days. This year Bangladesh experienced its worst floods in the decade, threatening the food security of more than four million Bangladeshi people. Australia imported its first shipment of wheat in 12 years as a 3-year record of prolonged drought left farmers unable to sow anything in cracked soils. Nowhere are the effects of climate change felt most strongly in a farmer’s field and on a consumer’s plate.
Considering that agriculture (including livestock farming) is the third largest contributor to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, helping farmers adapt and become more resilient to the vagaries of climate change benefits the planet and consumers. This means helping farmers to transition to more sustainable practices that achieve security of yield without increasing resource inputs such as land and labour. As someone whose background is in agriculture research in plant protection, I see immense potential and value that agriculture innovation can bring to growers.
For 10,000 years, farmers have been breeding and improving crops, domesticating them from their wild forms and for the last 150 years, plant scientists have made plant breeding much more efficient and precise. From hybridisation to mutagenesis and genetically modified organisms (GMO) to marker-assisted selection, science has been at the heart of our drive for food security.
The Green Revolution in the 1950s brought about the adoption of higher-yielding varieties, use of fertilizer and irrigation inputs, and greater investment into agricultural research and development. In India alone yields of wheat production increased from 10 million tons in the 1960s, to 73 million tons in 2006. But have we run out of options in our technocratic toolbox since the Green Revolution?
What’s Next for Science and Agriculture?
At Syngenta we are focused on accelerating our innovation to address the increasing challenges faced by farmers around the world, while also being cognizant of the expectations of society for quality food that is reasonably priced with no residues. Moreover, one thing unique to Asia is that 80 percent of the region’s food is grown by 400 million smallholders1, farmers who produce on less than one hectare of land. Anything we do in APAC should have them in mind.
Below I share three exciting innovations where we leverage Syngenta’s strengths and collaborate radically with partners to bring high performing products to some 450 million smallholders in Asia Pacific.
Bio-protection products are based on naturally occurring materials: minerals, microorganisms, plant extracts or pheromones. They are used for biotic stress management in controlling fungal and bacterial diseases, arthropod pests, nematodes and weeds.
In addition to traditional bio-protection products which typically have a narrow pest spectrum and mostly moderate efficacy compared to synthetic pesticides, Syngenta is investing in RNA-based bio-protection research. This technology harnesses a cell’s natural processes to offer a new-mode-of-action that is highly targeted and selective to certain types of pests. The RNA-based bio-protection is sprayed onto the plant. The pest eats the bio-protection product which is taken up into the pest’s cells. This triggers a process which stops the synthesis of an essential protein which is very specific to the target pest, controlling the pest before it can cause too much damage to the crop. The pest is controlled, and the plant matures to yield its crop.
RNA-based bio-protection will allow us to be very selective and ensure that we are only targeting pests that are damaging farmers’ crops, creating an environment that helps biodiversity flourish. RNA is completely natural and biodegradable, thus leaving no residues with relevance to safety and environment. The RNA-based bio-protection will offer growers an exciting new mode-of-action, which could provide a new tool to help delay the development of resistance to other control measures.
2. GroMORE – An Integrated Approach to Growing Rice
From my interactions with farmers in developing nations, I have noticed that although many smallholders have been in the profession for generations, many of them rely on tried-and-test methods which may not necessarily unlock the maximum yield potential of the crop they’re growing. They are very excited when we are able to advise and show them how they can better protect crops, reduce their cost of production while at the same time, increasing their yields. As the saying goes, “seeing is believing”.
In rice production, we have developed the GroMORE approach, which is a set of growing protocol that Syngenta recommends to rice farmers in order to help them attain maximum yield and profitability. This protocol encompasses selecting the right Syngenta products for use at the right rates and time based on the unique rice crop cycles in 90 major rice production environments globally.
These recommendations are in accordance with the principles of Integrated Pest Management and environmental sustainability, and complemented by agronomy advice on soil preparation, water management, nutrient management and field maintenance. Implementing the full GroMORE protocol helps farmers to mitigate production risks, protects the environment, and reduces risk of pesticide residues as no products are applied near harvest.
Today the GroMORE approach has been adopted in major rice production countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and Thailand. Yield gains have been recorded to be about 20% more than the average farmer practice.
3. Drone Technology
In Asia, rural to urban migration is occurring at alarming rates – younger generations are moving away from agriculture, a sector that is associated with backbreaking hard work in extreme heat conditions with low returns. The average age of a farmer in Japan in 67 years old, and in India, the Centre for Study of Developing Societies found that 76 percent of farmers want to give up farming. Labour scarcity and high costs are among the top three reasons.
Ensuring food security requires us to give agriculture a fresh coat of paint such that it is seen as meaningful, trendy, and lucrative with high returns for the younger generation. Precision application is one solution, and here drone applications is the area of focus. We have seen strong demand from growers in Asia to have this technology as it empowers the current labour force, creates new agriculture markets such as rental services of agriculture equipment, and significantly improves operator safety by reducing contact with chemical inputs.
Syngenta has partnered with China Agricultural University (CAU) and other major Research Institutes in Asia to evaluate the efficacy of Syngenta formulations when it is applied via drone application on rice corn, vegetables and plantations.
As much as drones offer an exciting development for application technology, various collaborations and regulatory guidelines have to be drawn. Syngenta has engaged with the plant protection industry association, drone development companies and government regulators to draw up guidelines and enforcements on drone applications to ensure that we realize the maximum benefit of this type of application while minimizing undesirable effects on surrounding environment and communities.
Not Just the WHAT, It’s Also About the HOW
Technology can bring great advantages in food security, safety, quality and productivity. But we are also seeing increasing demand from society for greater transparency and communication on how and where their food is produced.
Apart from providing the technology, we also need to look into how these technologies are delivered to the hands of the growers. Syngenta’s Good Growth Plan program – which comprises of six commitments covering environmental, agriculture productivity and social development goals – guides how we bring innovation pipelines to farmers. For example, under our commitment of “Helping every Farmer Stay Safe”, we’ve trained about 7.3 million farm workers on safe use of Syngenta’s crop protection products over the last four years and are constantly looking at innovative approaches to drive changes in farm behaviour. We have also created value-chain projects to ensure that our smallholder farmers have access to markets, technology, and finance to improve their livelihoods. Some of our key projects are in rice, grapes and coffee across Asia Pacific.
Finally, something that is close to my heart as a gastronomy lover is ensuring that we equip growers with the tools to produce safe food with the lowest residues. We’re piloting a digital tool that make residue predictions based on growing patterns adopted by the farmer. Through this tool, Syngenta, growers, and exporters work together to design growing practices that meet the residue requirements of exporting countries. This will make a big difference to the livelihoods and incomes of smallholder farmers who will now have the know-how on producing crops that meet the demands of niche export markets. For example, in India, a grape farmer producing for the European market is able to earn twice as much as their counterpart producing for the domestic Indian market.
With a strong handle on sustainability and innovation, I’m confident that we’ll be able to drive win-win outcomes for consumers, farmers and everyone involved in producing food to feed a growing plane. [APBN]
About the Author
Andre Oliveira, Head of Crop Protection Development APAC & China, Syngenta